New Species Named After Hong Kong

Introducing Hoilungia hongkongensis a Placozoan. What’s a placozoan? Literally it means “flat animal” and these animals represent one of the simplest multicellular life forms known. And up until this year the entire phylum (major branch of the tree of life) of Placozoans had only 1 species: Trichoplax adharens! That would be like saying that the sum of all known vertebrates was just one species.

But a team of scientists have now added Hoilungia hongkongensis making it 2!

Hoilungia – meaning sea dragon – was isolated from HK and therefore honoured with the species name hongkongensis. Don’t rush to go looking for this 1 mm across flattish blob though. Placozoans are utterly featureless and have only 5-6 different cell types – one of which is the epithelial cell which has little beating hairs that propel the animal across the sediment (slooowly) where it feeds like an amoeba by engulfing detritus. Like other featureless or cryptic species this one was identified and separated from others by genetic analysis alone. Basically there is nothing to look at.

Featured image: Bernd Schierwater (cc by 4.0)


Hong Kong’s Amazing Marine Biodiversity Highlighted by MarineGEO-Hong Kong”

Local and international scientists joined with HKU’s Swire Institute of Marine Science and School of Biological Sciences for an intensive, 10-day marine life survey through some of Hong Kong’s most disturbed and pristine marine environments. From the heavily impacted, inner Tolo Harbor to the more isolated, coral rich Tung Ping Chau, scientists identified over a thousand representative specimens of fish, crabs, snails, bivalves, worms and more across an estimated 300-400 total species.

Scientists are still working to identify each of these specimens which are also being documented through high resolution photography and genetic characterization, or barcoding. In fact, many specimens are stumping the expert taxonomists suggesting that there will be newly described species of hermit crabs and bivalves to come. Not all biodiversity is good news however, several invasive species were also identified which can cause disruptions to local ecosystems. In addition to identifying all of those organisms that they could see, scientists will use the latest technologies in genetic identifications to detect organisms that are too small to be recognized by the naked eye.

ARMS settlement plate deployed in Tung Ping Chau for two years. Many of these eight-level ARMS structures were found to have over 300 visible organisms living within.

ARMS settlement plate deployed in Tung Ping Chau for two years. Many of these eight-level ARMS structures were found to have over 300 visible organisms living within.

The survey methods were developed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Global Earth Observatory research program (MarineGEO), which is “the first long-term, worldwide research program to focus on understanding coastal marine life and its role in maintaining resilient ecosystems around the world”. In 2016, The University of Hong Kong became the first official MarineGEO site in Asia and hopes to serve as a node for future expansion in the region.

The ARMS were transported back to HKU and each plate was removed one at a time while making sure not to lose any organisms large or small.

A single plate from one ARMS structure measures ~25 X 25 cm. High resolution photographs like this one allow for visual identification of attached organisms including sponges, encrusting algae, tube worms, ascidians, and more. Scientists will look at not just who is there but also how their abundance changes around Hong Kong.

A single plate from one ARMS structure measures ~25 X 25 cm. High resolution photographs like this one allow for visual identification of attached organisms including sponges, encrusting algae, tube worms, ascidians, and more. Scientists will look at not just who is there but also how their abundance changes around Hong Kong.

One of the strengths of the MarineGEO project is the standardization of methods used to quantify biodiversity. The multilevel settlement structures, or ARMS, are approximately 0.5 m2 and resemble a marine invertebrate version of Hong Kong’s famous high-rises. To survey the existing biodiversity HKU scientists deployed twelve ARMS in Hong Kong in May 2015 and collected them in October 2017, with plans to deploy and collect data for 40 more ARMS across Hong Kong as far west as Lantau Island. In addition to providing a baseline biodiversity assessment, through time, this legacy project will allow scientists and governments to better evaluate human impacts on the marine environment and which interventions are most efficient at preserving biodiversity. To find out more and keep track of ongoing projects, visit the website at

Students and scientists brush off and pick through everything that is not firmly attached to the ARMS plates looking for organisms such as crabs, shrimp, snails and more. These are sorted by eye, counted, and passed to a taxonomic expert. They will also be sampled to determine the genetic sequence that corresponds to the taxonomic identification and build a library of genetic diversity for future use.

“MarineGEO is a legacy project which SWIMS has committed to lead for years to come. Although the project is global in scale, our grassroots efforts provide a new means of monitoring Hong Kong’s changing marine environment from negative factors like climate change and development, and positive factors like improved management and restoration, said” Dr. David Baker, Project Principal Investigator.

As a last step of ARMS sampling, all remaining material is scrapped from each plate and combined for one large, genetic characterization of the entire plate community. Individual “barcodes” are expected to number in the tens of thousands per ARMS.

“The amount and diversity of tiny creatures in Hong Kong waters is astonishing. Even more so considering how impacted the habitat is by the millions of people here,” added Dr. Till Roethig, SWIMS post-doctoral fellow. “It was exciting to connect everyone, from local students to global scientists, to the amazing diversity which makes Hong Kong a special and important site for conservation in the region,” said Dr. Shelby McIlroy, also a SWIMS post-doctoral fellow.

A group of local and international scientific collaborators take a break from the day’s work to flex their ARMS muscle. 

“As undergraduates, we had fun participating in this project. There were many benthic organisms that we had never seen before. The beautiful colours of sea slugs and the sound that snapping shrimps made were very memorable. We were also lucky to witness the biodiversity along with all the admirable researchers,” Chan Mei Yin, Chan Sze Wen, Lee Tsoi Tao Esther, Tsui Teresa Ka Wing and Wong Yu Yeung, Gary echoed.

Credit: “Dr David Baker’s research team at HKU’s Swire Institute of Marine Science and School of Biological Sciences”

Dead Chinese White Dolphin Found in Macau

A Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis) was found dead on the morning of the 19th of July (2017) floating in the sea near Cheoc Van beach in Coloane.

Local animal rights group Anima (Macau) was alerted to the presence of the deceased animal by a concerned citizen. Anima president, Albano Martins, speculated that the dolphin may have collided with a maritime vessel in the Pearl River Delta estuary.

The Anima president also said that Macau’s Marine and Water Bureau has retrieved the deceased animal and is arranging for the body to be disposed.

Sightings of dead dolphins off the coast of Macau are a relatively rare occurrence, but several have been documented in recent years.

11 Sea Turtles Released Back Into The Sea

On the 29th of June (2017) the AFCD (Agriculture Fisheries & Conservation Department) released 10 green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and one hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) in the southern waters of Hong Kong.

The turtles were among the 35 green turtles and one hawksbill turtle seized from a fish raft in Sok Kwu Wan Fish Culture Zone (Lamma Island) in September 2016.

The 10 green turtles and the hawksbill turtle weighed from 11.5 kilograms to 61 kg and measured about 45 centimetres to 82cm in carapace length. All of them were assessed by veterinarians of OPHK as being in good condition and ready to be returned to the sea. The other green turtles were already released in November 2016.

A green sea turtle released into the sea by AFCD staff

Before the turtles were released to the sea, they were tagged with a microchip and Inconel tags for future identification. Satellite transmitters were also attached to the carapaces of the turtles. By tracking the movement and feeding grounds of green turtles in the sea, the AFCD can collect data for formulating appropriate conservation measures and share its findings with other conservation authorities for the better conservation of sea turtles. Satellite tracking revealed that the some of the turtles released in November 2016 headed south to the South China Sea via different routes, reaching Wanshan Archipelago, Dongsha, Nansha and Xisha Islands, Hainan Island and as far as Malaysia.

The green turtle and the hawksbill turtle are globally endangered and critically endangered species respectively. In Hong Kong, all sea turtle species are protected under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance and the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance . Of the five sea turtle species found in Hong Kong waters, the hawksbill turtle is relatively rare and the green turtle is to date the only species known to nest locally.

Pregnant Chinese White Dolphin Found Dead On Lamma Island Beach

On the morning of the 2nd July (2017), a man fishing at Kat Tsai Wan, off the west coast of Lamma Island, found a 2.5 meter long pink dolphin washed up on the beach. The man told Apple Daily that he could tell from his boat that the animal was dead.

The Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK) response team visited the site and conducted a necropsy on the beach. The dolphin was an adult female and was carrying an unborn calf at full term.

The male calf measured 1.02 m in length,  was also dead. The foundation said in a statement that no net entanglement or evidence of physical trauma was found on either carcasses, and both were severely decomposed.

The OPCFHK team said the mother dolphin’s organs and flesh indicated that she was very healthy prior to her death. The team has took organ, blubber, and tissue samples for further testing, inlcuding for microplastics.

Rare Marine Bio Job Offer Posting

Jobs in Marine Biology are rare and even more so in Hong Kong. So when I saw this one posted, I had to share:

Company: ERM Hong Kong LTD.

Responsibilities:Conduct marine mammal observation/monitoring on construction vessels/ land-base in infrastructure projects

Working Hours: From 7 am to 5:30 pm

Working Location: Lantau Island & Tuen Mun

Training will be provided before the commencement of work


Form 5 graduate or above

Patient, responsible, positive and passionate about ocean

Willing to work outdoor, on shifts and during weekends and public holidays

Experience in observing dolphins is preferred but not a must

Immediately available is preferred

Fresh graduates will also be considered

The minimum of working days for the full-time position will be 18 days per month. For the part-time position, the working days will be 5 to 7 days per month.

Original Ad posted here at CP Jobs.

Hong Kong’s Only Marine Reserve Under Strain of Unruly Visitors

The SCMP reported yesterday that a surge in visitor numbers to the ecologically sensitive Cape D’Aguilar and its marine reserve has disrupted the work of scientists, with people even collecting animals and fishing illegally.

Quoting Professor Gray Williams of the Swire Institute of Marine Science research facility (SWIMS) it reported that a surge of visitors in the past few years to Cape D’Aguilar at the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island has disrupted research and experiments and raised safety concerns.

Some of the damage caused was cited as treading on things, changing the water supply, pulling small seedlings out of their pods and not putting them back and so that they die and standing on animals and thereby killing them.

The researchers and students at the station also observed visitors collecting animals or fishing in the area, which is illegal as the area is a no-take marine reserve.

The research centre and nearby residences are private property but visitors have attempted to enter the buildings – some successfully – despite the “private property” signs . The centre has therefore put up barriers and installed locks, but people are still attempting to bypass them. Most visitors were generally “very reasonable” when confronted, but some refused to stop what they were doing and loud arguments with resulted, according to Williams.

Williams said he did not want to impose the “ultimate” solution of putting up a wall, because it would spoil the aesthetics of the place, but may have to consider it if the situation did not improve.

The area surrounding SWIMS at Cape d’Aguilar is a designated site of scientific interest by the government in 1991. SWIMS opened in November 1994 to conduct marine research in and around the marine reserve.

Around 2013 after a number of articles about Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse in local newspapers, researchers saw a marked increase in sightseers to the area . Unobscured by air and light pollution the area also saw many star-gazers who want to study a night sky . There are even websites arranging trips by tour groups, with some even listing the private research facility as a landmark to visit. All of this is putting increased pressure on the site’s ability to handle visitors.

Williams hoped that making people aware of the situation could help to minimise the impact their presence had on the area.
“Trying to go through education, to explain to people, that if you are to come down here then you need to be careful to make sure that [they] don’t disrupt the environment, because we can see that the environment has already been damaged by the number of people coming here,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department said its responsibility was to the marine reserve – the waters below the high tide mark – and not the coastal rocky area or other land areas in Cape D’Aguilar.

(My own commentary on this: Unlike the clear distinction of areas of responsibility in HK government departments, the marine habitats do not generally define so clearly. The cross-over from sea-to-land is not a distinct line but a continuum with dependencies on both sides. Many insects and land invertebrates will feed on marine detritus at low tide, many land plants disperse via the sea, and many marine animals depend on land-based organisms for food. It would be wise for government departments to recognize this and use a more inter-disciplinary approach to protect areas where two departments responsibilities meet instead of sticking to “their area”. The same incidentally applied to the air-pollution problem in HK, when the EPD was responsible for air pollution, but if you saw a ship bellowing out black smoke and reported it to the EPD, they could not do anything about it because that was the Marine Departments responsibility. However, I think this issue has since been addressed and there are inter-department groups now.