May 2021 Palms Islands Group Field Trip

Andrew Baird, Tom Bridge, Pete Cowman, Augustine Crosbie, Jeremy Horowitz and Julia Hung have just returned from two weeks on James Cook University’s Orpheus Island Research Station.

The aims of the trip were two-fold. Firstly, the hunt for topotypes continues. The Palm Islands group is an important location in the history of coral taxonomy being the site of a couple of major collecting efforts, firstly by Saville-Kent in the 1800s (Figure 1) and more recently by Charlie Veron and colleagues in the 1980s. Consequently, the Palm Islands group is the type location for over 20 nominal species, including six Turbinaria spp. described by Bernard 1906 and four Goniopora spp. described by Veron & Pichon 1982.

Figure 1. Plate XI from from Saville-Kent (1893).
He beautifully illustrates a number of species of Acropora that were common at the sites he visited on the GBR which included the Palm Islands. The illustrations are so lifelike that many will be familiar to those that work on the GBR today. However, many of the names will not be familiar. The junior synonyms according to Wallace (1999) are indicated in the brackets. Recent reassessment of these synonymies by Project Phoenix suggests that in many cases Saville-Kent was correct. 1 & 2. Acropora prostrata [junior synonym millepora]; 3. A. kenti [js tenuis]; 4. A. ornate [js florida]; 5. A. decipiens [js robusta]; 6. A. laxa [similar to pulchra]; 7. A. secunda [similar to intermedia]; 8. A. grandis; 9 & 10. A. gemmifera; 11 A. elseyi; 12. A. pulchra; 13-15. A. hebes [js aspera]; 16. A. scabrosa [js divaricata]; 17. A. divaricata

The second aim was even more ambitious. Gus Crosbie is currently doing a 6-month internship at the Museum of Tropical Queensland. Gus plans to put together a voucher collection for all the species in the Palm Islands, partly to support his PhD research exploring depth zonation in coral assemblages, but also to allow Project Phoenix to revisit the taxonomy. The collection is also part of a recent initiative at MTQ – CoralBank, which aims to curate field images, skeletons and tissue sample for all coral species on the Great Barrier Reef. Once Gus’s project is complete it will mean that OIRS is one of the few research stations on earth where coral researchers can be confident they know what species they are working with.

The team have now collected over 400 specimens from the Palm Islands representing between 250-300 species. This is a large fraction of the 355 species thought to occur in the Central and Northern-GBR (Veron et al 2011).

Working through the many specimens we collected during this trip. Photo credit: Andrew Baird

The corals in the Palm Islands are extraordinary. These high islands about 20 km of the mainland harbor an extraordinary diversity of habitats, ranging from typical exposed mid-shelf Acropora assemblages on the east coast, to Porites bommie fields on the sheltered west coast. One of the most interesting habitats is the murky bottom of Little Pioneer Bay where the water is always turbid and the corals are very rarely disturbed, allowing some species that are rarely encountered anywhere to thrive. For example, the team sampled at least three species of Alveopora and Anacropora at this site, a couple of which are likely new to science. If you look hard enough in the Palms Island you can find almost any Great Barrier Reef species.

Potentially three separate species of Alveopora. Photo credit: Andrew Baird

We thank the staff at OIRS for their continued support and good company. Gus Crosbie’s research is funded and in collaboration with the ARC CoE, David Yellowlees Excellence in Research Award, the APR internship program, the Museum of Tropical Queensland and the Morris Family Trust.

Literature cited

Bernard, H. M. 1896. The genus Turbinaria, The genus Astraeopora. Catalogue of the Madreporarian Corals in the British Museum (Natural History) 2:1-106, pls. 101-133.

Saville-Kent, W. 1893. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: its products and potentialities, London.

Veron, J. E. N., and M. Pichon. 1982. Scleractinia of Eastern Australia. Part IV. Family Poritidae. Australian National University Press, Canberra. Veron, J. E. N., E. Turak, L. M. DeVantier, M. G. Stafford-Smith, and S. Kininmonth. 2011. Coral Geographic. Aust. Inst. Mar. Sci.

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