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 https://marinegeo.si.edu/hong-kong-china.

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”


The Living Fossils of Hong Kong and Richard Fortey’s Survivors – Part 1

Having briefly worked in the Natural History Museum in London, i had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by Richard Fortey who is known for a whole list of popular science books. One of these books, as ibrecently found out has nearly a whole chapter set in Hong Kong and dealing with some of Hong Kong’s lesser known marine animals.

In “Survivors: the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind”, Richard Fortey visits East Sai Kung Country Park with Professor Paul Shin of City University, to explore some mudflats looking for creatures that are rare survivors of past geological ages millions of years ago.

You may be familiar with this animal:

Credit Citron / CC-BY-SA-

The coelacanth is a lobe-finned fish thought to be the ancestor of all land vertebrates. Having evolved 400 million years ago, it was thought extinct for 66 million years until famously it was discovered living in 1938. That made it the poster boy for living fossils. But few Hongkongers would suspect a living fossil in their city, let alone 4!!!

One of these is Lingula anatina. It consists of two valves forming a clasped shell and a long stalk or pedicle. The pedicle is buried vertically in the sediment to anchor the animal while its valves open to filter tiny edible pieces out of the sea water at the sediment surface. 

Lingula anatina (via Wikicommons)

To an untrained eye this might seem like mussel or clam or other mollusc. But it is in fact a brachiopod, a group of animals that has been around for about 500 million years. To put that into context, the colonisation of land by plants happened 400 million years ago. How a brachiopod differs from a mussel or clam is its internal organs and body structure – but that’s a matter for undergraduate invertebrate textbooks….

Lingula for all its similarity to a mussel, is not a mollusc, but the next living fossil is.  The chiton Acanthopleura japonica is very ancient and primitive mollusc.

A chiton preserved in its rolled up state after becoming detached from its rock surface

The animal is similar to a snail but instead of a shell it has 8 armoured plates which it locks together to form a shield. They use a muscular foot to glide around rocks scraping algae off them. If scared or at low tide they suck themselves onto the rock with their foot and at the same time lift their shell to form a vacuum – so prying them off rocks is not recommended as you will only end up breaking and killing them. If they do get pried off rocks they roll up a bit like a wood louse. Acanthopleura is a common sight around Hong Kong’s rocky shores. And chitons very similar to it started appearing about 450 million years ago…for context, dinosaurs appeared about 200 million years later…and in all that time they really haven’t changed much.

The third living fossil is a type of worm. The Peanut-worm to be precise, so named because it can bunch itself into a peanut-shaped blob. Its proper name is sipunculid worms, and they too have been around for almost 500 million years. As with brachiopod sand mussels, the difference between a sipunculid and a ‘regular’ marine worm is in its internal body structure and organs. Hong Kong actually hosts at least two species of sipunculid worm. One of these is Siphonosoma cumanenses, pictured below. It makes burrows on fine sandy shores.

Live specimen of Siphonosoma cumanenses collected in Fort Pierce, Florida. Photo by Kawauchi, Gisele Y. by myspecies.info licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

The other is Sipunculus nudus, pictured below, which is – not surprisingly – also eaten in Southern China.

A bucket of deliciously-looking purple worms (labeled 即劏北海沙虫 – “‘Sand worms’ from Beihai, at a street vendor in Guangzhou. Photo by Vmenkov via WikiCommons licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0
Live specimen of Sipunculus nudus (dorsal view) collected in Fort Pierce, Florida. Photo by Kawauchi, Gisele Y. From myspecies.info licensed under CC BY-NC-SA
Finally, there are the horseshoe crabs, but that is for Part 2…

Dead Green Turtle Found with Plastic in Stomach

A green turtle (Chelonia mydas) was found dead in Sai Kung over the weekend, apparently after ingesting too much trash.
Click here for the Coastal Watch HK Facebook page with images of the turtle.

On Saturday (24 Oct), the lifeless body of a green turtle was spotted on a beach at Pak Lap village, Ming Pao Daily reported.

The turtle’s body was said to have been dragged by stray dogs and its stomach mauled. An examination revealed that the stomach was full of litter.

The trash found inside the turtle, which was about 40-50 centimeters long, included nylon string and plastic bags.

It was the first time that evidence has been found in Hong Kong of green turtles consuming marine litter the report cited the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as saying.

After looking at the pictures of the turtle’s body, Chong Dee-hwa, the founder of the Hong Kong Ichthyological Society, believes the green turtle was a female aged around 10 years.

Patrick Yeung, project manager of the Coastal Watch Project under the WWF, said the case can be taken as evidence that sea turtles in Hong Kong are eating a lot of trash, which is a worrying situation.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department was quoted as saying that it has been informed about the case and that it will send an officer to look into the matter.

The green turtle is a protected species in Hong Kong. The beach area in Sham Wan on Lamma Island and nearby shallow waters is one of the last nesting sites of the highly endangered green turtles of southern China.

Since 1999, the area was being closed to the public from June to October every year to enable the turtles to carry out their nesting activities.

Whale Shark Spotted off Sai Kung

On Monday morning (20/7/15) at around 9am, a fisherman was out on his 20-foot-long boat off the shores of Tung Lung Chau Island, south of Sai Kung, when he spotted what he thought to be a shark.

It was a gentle whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean which feeds on plankton with the occasional small squid or fish.

Once the fisherman realised that the animal posed him no harm, he observed it and took photos for the next half hour before it swam away, reports Headline News.

Whale sharks can reach up to about 13 metres in length and 21 tons in weight.

The last time a whale shark was sighted in Hong Kong was in 2012.

The president of the Ichthyological Society of Hong Kong believes that the trawling ban has led to healthier fish populations. He predicts that in the future, we’ll be seeing even more sharks in Hong Kong.

HKU Student Identifies Dinosaur-Era Fish in Sai Kung Rocks

A Hong Kong University (HKU) student is said to have identified a Jurassic fish from Lai Chi Chong after studying some fossil collections at the university’s Stephen Hui Geological Museum.

Edison Tse Tze-kei found the specimen by chance as he was doing a research project in his final year of undergraduate study during the 2013-14 academic year, according to an announcement from HKU.

The fish, which is believed to date back to around 147 million years, represents the first dinosaur-era vertebrate specimen identified in Hong Kong, the university said in a statement posted on its website Thursday.



Tse, a graduate of the class of 2014, completed the research, description and identification under the supervision of three professors, including Michael Pittman, Research Assistant Professor and Head of the Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory at HKU.

The research results will now be published in PeerJ, an open access, peer-reviewed, scholarly journal of biological and medical sciences, by the end of this month.

The fossil specimen was found at Lai Chi Chong in Sai Kung, which is within the Hong Kong Geopark area, and was kept at a HKU museum.

The Jurassic fish was an osteoglossoid teleost fish, which is also referred to as Paralycoptera.


The preserved skeleton represents the first of such fish species from Hong Kong and the most southerly Paralycoptera identified to date, meaning that the activity area of the fish could be larger than scientists had first estimated.

Matthew Sin, a spokesperson for local NGO Green Power, said some visitors to Lai Chi Chong may have taken away rocks as souvenirs.

He reminded people that taking any sedimentary rocks, fossil, mineral or even sand samples from the Geopark is illegal.

Featured image: Magnified image (inset) of a fossil specimen from a Lai Chi Chong geological collection. Research by a HKU student has led to Hong Kong’s first identified dinosaur-era vertebrate. Credit:10.7717/peerj.865

Hong Kong Pufferfish

I recently discovered the greenbluesea blog by Emilie. She is one of the few people doing underwater photography in HK (mostly) and this is a nice post about the HK pufferfish, which I recommend.

green blue sea ∙ 蔚藍碧海

HK Pufferfish

Juvenile Hong Kong Pufferfishes can be curious. Hello there!

I have picked Takifugu alboplumbeus to feature in this first ‘marine life’ post, because although it is a common species which is not only restricted to Hong Kong, it somehow has come to be commonly known as the Hong Kong Pufferfish. And also, well, would you just look at that little face.

The characteristic of pufferfishes is their ability to inflate their body, increasing their size dramatically. The fish triggers this defence mechanism by drawing water into a chamber near the stomach. Pufferfishes have beak-like teeth and small spines covering much of the body, though you wouldn’t think it from looking at these guys. Also, pufferfishes can be highly toxic if eaten; the notorious Japanese delicacy of ‘fugu’ which requires specialist preparation is in fact a pufferfish. Pufferfishes are omnivorous, feeding on worms, crustaceans, molluscs and algae amongst other things.

HK Pufferfish buried

Those divers can’t spot…

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Green Sea Turtle Found at Clear Water Bay Beach

The SCMP reported on Saturday (14/3/15) that a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) was discovered on Sheung Sze Wan beach in Clear Water Bay Saturday. The animal appeared to have breathing difficulties.

David Gething, a local vet who helped transport the animal said “It was breathing very, very heavily and had bubbles coming from its nose, which suggests it has fluid in its chest.” 

The reptile was picked up by SPCA staff and taken to Ocean Park.

Green sea turtles are known to have occurred and nested in Hong Kong in the past – as shown by such names as Turtle Cove – but have become very rare with Sham Wan on Lamma Island being one of the last remaining nesting sites.