Iziko Marine Biologists Visit the Natural History Museum, London

  • Posted: Sep 10, 2013

Iziko scientists Dr Wayne Florence (project supervisor), Mr Dylan Clarke and Ms Melissa Boonzaaier (Natural History Department) spent about two months at the Natural History Museum in London (NHMUK). From this (short) research visit, the staff members have gained improved knowledge of marine invertebrate taxonomy and collections management procedures, and hope that collaborative projects will open doors, create opportunities and unlock primary biodiversity data.

As a consequence of European expeditions conducted in the 18th and 19th century to collect specimens along the South African coastline, the NHMUK houses significant collections of South Africa’s deep-sea benthic (bottom dwelling) fauna. This renders NHMUK collections historically important to South Africa, since the data locked within them can be collated to produce important conclusions regarding the state and management of our oceanic and coastal biodiversity.

South Africa is ranked as one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. However, we have gaps in our knowledge, particularly of the diversity of benthic (bottom dwelling) marine invertebrates. Our marine biodiversity includes more than 13,000 species of which about 9,362 species are marine invertebrates. Although molluscs, fish and crustaceans have historically enjoyed much consideration, invertebrates such as sponges, tunicates, echinoderms (which include starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins), polychaetes (benthic marine worms) and bryozoans (moss animals or false lace corals) have been neglected due to the perception that they were of poor commercial value.

Through earning their doctorates in this field, Dylan and Melissa will significantly improve South Africa’s knowledge of the diversity and biogeography of polychaetes and bryozoans respectively. The geographic focal point of their research is the west coast of southern Africa, as it has been poorly represented in previous work. The outputs of the research will elucidate the status of southern Africa’s marine invertebrate biodiversity and assist in identifying sensitive marine areas that may need protection.

To achieve these goals, both researchers visited London recently to access the relevant marine invertebrate type (specimens on which the description and name of a new species is based) and voucher specimens housed in the NHMUK. The type specimens are important for taxonomic comparison with existing, unidentified, SAMC collections of bryozoans and polychaetes from the west coast of southern Africa. Images of the NHMUK types will be used to build an image reference collection of relevant types and voucher specimens not housed in South Africa, making access easier and more cost effective.

In addition, access to NHMUK’s best practice policy documents (on loan management and conservation) and taxon-specific reference libraries to acquire earlier taxonomic works from the 18th century, often inaccessible in South Africa, was facilitated through this visit. Wayne and Melissa were also able to attend the 16th International Bryozoological Association (IBA) meeting in Catania, Italy. While Wayne delivered a well-received oral presentation, Melissa was one of four recipients of the IBA Travel Grant to attend and present a poster at the meeting. Amongst internationally renowned bryozoologists, they represented South Africa (and Iziko South African Museum) and took full advantage of the significant networking opportunities.                                                                                           

Ms Mary Spencer-Jones, the Bryozoa curator at NHMUK, agreed to co-supervise Melissa’s doctoral thesis, while Dr Gordon Paterson (NHMUK and head of the Aquatic Invertebrates Division) co-supervises Dylan’s thesis. Collaborations such as these will be a great initiative to boost Iziko’s research output through potential co-authorship with highly rated, international scientists. Added benefits to collaborative projects are access to relevant types at both museums and the use of specialist facilities (for example, free use of the environmental scanning electron microscope at NHMUK – an essential piece of equipment not accessible in Cape Town). The knowledge gained from this research visit will clearly benefit Iziko Museums of South Africa through improved curation, but moreover, as we have severe capacity shortages in the region, it is hoped that initiatives such as these will assist us to create the critical mass of taxonomic capacity that southern Africa so desperately needs.

Melissa Boonzaaier

Funding: Ms Boonzaaierwas funded by the NRF Professional Development Programme, Iziko Museums of South Africa and IBA Travel Grant. The NRF’s Knowledge Interchange and Collaboration and Thuthuka Programmes funded both Dr Florence and Mr Clarke’s research visit to NHMUK.

Researcher Profiles:

Melissa Kay Boonzaaierreceived a BSc (Biodiversity and Ecology) in 2007 and Honours (in Zoology) in 2008 at Stellenbosch University. Thereafter, she obtained her MSc (in Zoology) at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University working on sea turtles, mainly loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) to examine hatchling sex ratios, in KwaZulu-Natal. During a 2011/12 (DST-NRF Internship) at Stellenbosch University, she examined spionid polychaete marine worms infesting on abalone (Haliotis midae). Currently, she is working on South African marine Bryozoa with Dr Wayne Florence and Prof. Mark Gibbons as her promoters towards doctoral studies at the University of the Western Cape. Her fields of interest are mainly marine biology, conservation and ecology and bryozoan taxonomy.

Dylan Clarkecompleted a MSc degree in 2005 which focussed on the relationship between the infaunal polychaete communities and sediment composition off southern Namibia. He subsequently lectured at the University of the Western Cape (in the Biodiversity and Conservation Biology Department) before being appointed as the Large Pelagic Scientist in the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (in the old Marine and Coastal Management), responsible for providing scientific advice for the sustainable exploitation of the tuna and swordfish stocks in South African waters. Currently, he is the Curator of Fishes at Iziko Museums of South Africa since January 2010, and is undertaking a PhD in polychaete diversity and biogeography.

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