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”

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Sea Spiders, Chinese Takeaways and Taxonomical Humor

Sea spiders? Sounds like a B-movie horror story: ‘Sharkrantula”, maybe? Not at all. Sea spiders is the common name for pycnogonids (pik-noh-go-nids) which are a type of marine arthropod (joint-legged animal) which includes crustaceans like crabs, lobsters, shrimp and prawns, but also insects. But pycnos have actually got more in common with horseshoe crabs and spiders in terms of anatomy, so the name sea spiders is not too far from the truth.

Calipallenid pycnogonid via Flickr
Pycnogonid can be beautifully colorful

The occur in seas all over the world from tropical reefs to frozen polar seas and from shallow water to depths of over 7,000 m. Most are tiny although some deep-sea species can grow to 90 cm. Pycnogonids have extremely reduced bodies in which the abdomen has almost disappeared, while the legs are long and clawed. Muscles are in some cases reduced to a single cell! They can even breathe and absorb food through their skin. As you can imagine their dietary needs are therefore very small. And yet they are predators that prey on corals and worms. The head has a long proboscis with an unusual mouth at the end and several simple eyes on a tube-like stalk. The head also has a pair of claws and a pair of attachments on which the eggs can be carried. All in all, it can be very hard to tell just which end of a pycnogonid is the head!

You might think so what? Spiders are creepy and yucky and iffy. But marine biologists love pycnos – they are just so strange and fascinating biologically.

Two pycnos mating. You could be forgiven for thinking it was just one. Now tell me which end is the head???

But what has all this got to do with Chinese takeaways And taxonomical jokes?

Earlier this year I received the sad news that the head of the department I used to work in the Natural History Museum in London passed away. Roger Bamber (tribute by Dr. Tammy Horton) was a legend of a man and also an expert on pycnogonids – a pycnogonid taxonomist. Unlike the more familiar taxidermist (who stuffs and preserves dead animals), a taxonomist is an expert on the certain groups of animals or plants and decides what is and is not a new species – but come to think of it and they also work with dead animals and need to preserve them…sometimes they stuff them too…but its much more complex and tricky, I promise. There is a difference honestly!

Anyway, one of Hong Kong’s pycnos (there at least 6 species locally) was discovered by Roger. Tanystylum sinoabductus was identified in Hong Kong’s only marine reserve at Cape D’Aguilar where the Swire Institute of Marine Science is located. (Note: a marine reserve, unlike a marine park, does not allow any sort of anchorage or fishing, so its is completely protected – except for water pollution of course.) This particular pycno was found in exposed mussel beds. But at only roughly 1/2 a mm in size you will only see it with a magnifying glass and only recognize it under a microscope.

And now the for long awaited joke: the species is part of the genus Tanystylum, but the specific (species) name that Roger chose – sinoabductus -is the taxonomical joke. Sino in latin means chinese (duh!), and abductus – if you have not already guessed it – means ‘taken away’, thus sinoabductus is the “Chinese takeaway’. OMG, I hear you say. What an unfunny joke! You have to understand there is not much opportunity for humor in science (except in the pub after the work) and marine biologists spend a long time in the lab staring down a microscope or hours pouring data on a computer and reading and writing scientific papers any chance to get away with even a bit of humor is appreciated!

Jades_Chinese_Takeaway_-_Thornton_Road_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1577296
A typical chinese takeaway restaurant in the UK – and also the inspiration for the name of a pycnogonid sea spider…taxonomical humor.

And just in case anybody in this era of social justice warriors and political correctness thinks that this species name could be racist: the other reason for the name is that the type species – that is the 1 animal that was selected as typical of the species and which represents the ‘gold standard’ for that species – now resides in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, UK. Thus this Chinese sea spider species was in fact ‘taken away’ to a noted museum for that group of animal (which is standard practice as well, so no accusations of kidnapping or robbery please!).

Yummp_hk_lunchbox
Never ask a pycnogonid taxonomist for a Chinese takeaway. Bon appetite!