Bio-Inventory in Oz

Australia's famous Great Barrier Reef has no trouble attracting the world's marine scientists to catalog its riches. But the country has only 100 native marine scientists, and the biota on the remote 14,000-kilometer west coast of the country remains largely unknown.

To tackle the problem, an international team of 40 scientists converged last month on the town of Dampier. During an 18-day biodiversity blitz, they explored every niche to inventory the local biota, fossicking among the mangroves, combing the sandy shores, and diving the warm waters of the Dampier archipelago, a 35-kilometer-long island cluster in Australia's northwest corner that easily matches the diversity of the Great Barrier Reef. Organizer Fred Wells, curator of aquatic biology at the Western Australian Museum in Perth, got the idea for the strike force from Sydney's Australian Museum, which did a similar inventory on Queensland's Lizard Island in 1975.

So far, five such surveys, held near remote coastal areas around the country, have produced a treasure trove of new data: 260 new species, 36 new genera, and two new families. These include Western Australia's first members of the marine mite family, its first species of a wormlike mollusk called aplacophoran, and an unusual species of benthic ctenophore, a bottom-dwelling comb jelly. Findings from the most recent outing, which was funded by a local liquid natural gas company, will eventually be published in the proceedings of the Western Australian Museum. Wells says the work may also help establish a marine park to protect the Dampier archipelago.