Annelids, amphipods, and mollusks…oh my!
While these creatures would be quite a mouthful for Dorothy, scientists view them as invaluable bio-indicators in coral reef systems, signaling the health and integrity of the reef, and they are found in great abundance in the Madang Lagoon, which is nestled along the remote north coast of Papua New Guinea.
This past month, a research team returned to the lagoon to conduct a current taxonomic assessment that can be compared to biodiversity levels recorded in the same spot 20 years earlier, as well as hunt for new species. A small team of 4 scientists and 2 graduate student researchers led by Professor James Thomas from Nova Southeastern University’s National Coral Reef Institute were embedded within a larger French expedition to the area under direction of Philippe Bouchet from the Natural History Museum in Paris. According to Thomas, the Madang Lagoon has the greatest diversity of marine species in the world that has been formally described, and the goal of the trip was to document any changes that may have occurred since it was last explored.
Back in 1990, Thomas received two seed grants from National Geographic for the original site work that lead to the discovery of the unusual levels of diversity in the lagoon. His initial goal was to establish diversity levels across the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). “Nobody thought there were reefs on the northern coast of New Guinea, because researchers assumed you needed shallow coastal areas for coral reefs to thrive,” Thomas explains. Nevertheless, the team began the census in the Madang Lagoon before heading to the northern tip of the GBR and was puzzled to discover an unprecedented amount of diversity right where they thought it wouldn’t be.
“In Madang, we went a half mile out off the leading edge of the active Australian Plate and were in 6000 meters of water. There were no shallow bays and lagoons typical of most coral reef environments. When we returned to our labs and began to formally assess our collections we found more species in our study organisms in this relatively small lagoon than the entire remainder of the Great Barrier Reef,” Thomas recalls. The vast array of species the team found in this first lagoon, which is a mere 3 by 14 kilometers, set a high benchmark for the rest of the expedition. This finding challenged the accepted theory of species radiation, and caused scientists to ask how this deeply branched diversity arrived in Madang Lagoon.
On the heels of his successful findings, Thomas continued his work cataloguing the lagoon’s species through a four-year funded program he established at the Smithsonian, which sent researchers from various disciplines back to the site. What resulted were numerous published scientific papers on one of the most detailed and diverse catalogue of tropical coral reef species ever recorded. Thomas explains that the team of researchers also eventually learned that the high biodiversity found in Madang was likely linked to the complex geology of the area rather than the biology. “What you have in northern New Guinea is layered accretions of old reef heaped up as the Australian tectonic plate moves northward colliding with other major and minor plates. It’s akin to many Noah’s arks crashing into the shoreline,” he explains.
And now his story has come full circle.
With news of World Bank-funded tuna canneries popping up alongside new mining operations in the lagoon, Thomas and his crew along with the French research team not only wanted to conduct a census to see what has changed in the past 20 years, but also to create a new baseline that the local landowners could use to track the effects these new industries might have on their reef. “This part of the world is a complex interweave of biology and sociology. The new mining operation is now dumping thousands of tons of mining waste into the Ramu River, the residue of which could end up in the Madang Lagoon. So the big worry is heavy metal accumulation and siltation,” Thomas explains. While Thomas’ team concentrated on previous research sites, the French group conducted comprehensive surveys of the entire reef system and surrounding deep waters, resulting in hundreds of new species records, many waiting to be confirmed as new to science.
The research is no piece of cake due to logistics and local politics. From the Eastern US it’s a forty-four hour trip to reach the lagoon. Once the team arrives they must navigate local customs and landholdings. According to Thomas, everything in the country is owned. “You can’t just go out on a boat and dive, or you could be dynamited.” The three clans that own the Madang Lagoon require the team hire a boat, a captain, and an observer for each location. In addition, to help build strong relationships with the local landowners prior to the expedition, the French research team headed by Dr. Bouchet spent time conducting advance visits and meetings. As a result, Thomas goes on to explain that, on the whole, landowners appreciate the work the researchers are doing.
At the lab facilities located on the campus of The Divine Word University established near the Madang Lagoon, the researchers sort, photograph, classify, and analyze genetic information of all the species collected during the day’s dives. The researchers welcome local landowners and children to the lab area to work alongside them. Locals are encouraged to look through the microscopes, observe collected materials, and help process the samples. “Many who look at the teeming small things under the microscope had no idea such things were present on their reefs,” Thomas explains.
Now back in Australia and debriefing before returning stateside, the team has counted the expedition a success and is looking forward to bringing the unique story of the Madang Lagoon and its astounding biodiversity to the public eye.
The Madang Research Team:
-James D. Thomas, Professor, Nova Southeastern University’s National Coral Reef Institute
-Greg Rouse, Professor, Scripps Institute of Oceanography
-Terry Gosliner, Provost & Director of Science & Collections, CA Academy of Science
-Matthew Jebb, Director, National Botanic Gardens, Dublin
-Ms. Mindi Summers, PhD Student working with Dr. Rouse
-Mrs. Stephanie Andringa, Masters Student working with Dr. Thomas
*Please contact Dr. James Thomas at Anamixis@hotmail.com for further information about the expedition and research on Madang Lagoon.