Michelle Ridley, The West Australian.
An octopus that can lose an arm at will, a coral that turns purple when it is stressed and another coral that produces mucus to clean dirt from itself are just some of the animals uncovered by marine scientists on a trip to the Kimberley.
The three-week field trip, led by the WA Museum, involved 14 researchers walking on the reef and diving to survey marine life.
The team included experts in algae, seagrasses, corals, sponges, polychaetes (worms), echinoderms such as starfish and sea urchins, crustaceans, molluscs and fish.
WA Museum cruise leader and dive supervisor Clay Bryce said the researchers discovered a new species of soft coral, a juvenile of a new species of fish they had found on an earlier field trip and a new genus of algae.
They also discovered a new species of seaweed, nicknamed Rasta weed because of its similarity to Rastafarian dreadlocks.
Mr Bryce said one of the most interesting animals encountered on the trip was the octopus Ameloctopus litoralis, which has a head about 2cm long and arms about 14cm long.
The octopus does not have an ink sac, but can drop its arms to escape if attacked.
The 220km survey of Kimberley waters last month was the first of four field trips in a five-year study of the region funded by Woodside Petroleum.
“It’s the biggest biodiversity project running in Australia at the moment,” Mr Bryce said. “We have 14 people on the reef or diving at any one time.
“Each person dives for an hour or walks on the reef for an hour and then we move to the next site.”
The project involves researchers from the WA Museum, the Australian Museum, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the Queensland Museum, Museum Victoria, the WA Herbarium, Curtin University and the CSIRO.
On the most recent field trip, researchers filmed the marine habitat, analysed the water quality and collected DNA in addition to the survey of underwater life.
Mr Bryce said the team collected about 1500 specimens and more than 1000 DNA samples on the trip.
“It’s a significant amount of biological material to be researched and that’s just this year,” he said. “In the next three years we’ll probably do about the same.”
Mr Bryce said there was a huge amount to discover, with 2500 islands off the Kimberley coast.
“This is really one of Australia’s last frontiers, not only because of its remoteness, but also biologically speaking,” he said.
But the isolation of the Kimberley coast, coupled with low visibility, strong tides and the possibility of stonefish, crocodiles and sharks, can make it a dangerous place to work if precautions are not taken.
“We manage our diving and our reef walks very carefully, it’s remote and a difficult place to work,” Mr Bryce said.
Video diaries of the field trip will be released today at www.museum.wa.gov.au/kimberley.