October 2, 2013

26 September 2013

New global patterns of marine fish diversity have been revealed using information collected through a ‘citizen science’ initiative developed in Tasmania. As part of the Reef Life Survey program, committed recreational SCUBA divers are trained and supported to survey numbers of reef animals worldwide. Analysis of information provided by Reef Life Survey volunteers over the past six years has revealed new hotspots of marine biodiversity, including southwestern Australia and the Galapagos Islands.

A report based on the Reef Life Survey data, published in the prestigious journal Nature, presents an alternative view of global biodiversity patterns. In order to reflect ecological processes, global diversity was considered in terms of the abundance and characteristics of fish species for the first time, rather than simply the number of species present in different regions. Results provide new insights into how different fishes associate with each other around the world, and highlight novel and informative ways that diversity information can benefit coastal management.

The co-founders of Reef Life Survey, Professor Graham Edgar and Dr Rick Stuart-Smith, both researchers at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) at the University of Tasmania, highlight the central role played by volunteer divers in contributing to new scientific breakthroughs. “The assistance of over 100 dedicated divers has allowed us to look at ecological patterns and processes impossible for scientific dive teams to cover”, Professor Edgar said.

Dr Stuart-Smith, the lead author of the paper, highlighted that the study was only possible because of the unique dataset, which currently includes information on over 2000 fish species from over 5,000 surveys in 40 countries, extending from polar regions to the tropics. “The network of volunteers who contribute to RLS includes people from a range of backgrounds, but all have extensive diving experience and enormous commitment and motivation”, said Dr Stuart-Smith, praising the efforts of the RLS volunteers.

The Reef Life Survey program was developed through funding assistance from the former Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities Program, and the Marine Biodiversity Hub, a collaborative partnership supported through the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program.

Extract from Nature
Simply counting the numbers of species may not provide a complete view of species diversity. Accounting for the relative abundance and functional traits within fish communities identifies new diversity hotspots that are not recognised when only measuring species richness. The results, published in Nature this week, may have implications for conservation strategies and for understanding how biodiversity influences ecosystem functioning.

The way that species contribute to ecosystems is not determined by numbers alone; the sustainability and resilience of various processes within a community, such as nutrient cycling, are also influenced by species abundance and functional traits. Rick Stuart-Smith and colleagues incorporate these factors in a survey of 2,473 marine fish across the globe and report different global patterns of diversity than those produced when just considering species richness. They identify new diversity hotspots in some temperate regions and in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, which are outside the species-rich tropical regions that are traditionally associated with high biodiversity.

These findings demonstrate that metrics of ecological function represent a useful complement to metrics of species diversity, and provide a detailed measure of biodiversity that could inform conservation management.

Stuart-Smith RD, Bates AE, Lefcheck JS, J. Duffy E, Baker SC, Thomson RJ, Stuart-Smith JF, Hill NA, Kininmonth SJ, Airoldi L, et al. Integrating abundance and functional traits reveals new global hotspots of fish diversity. Nature. 2013;501(7468):539 - 542. Available from: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7468/full/nature12529.html

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