Taxonomy and Biogeography of South African Bryozoans



I completed my B.Sc. and B.Sc. (Hons) degrees in 2007 and 2008 respectively at the University of Stellenbosch, and have participated in an array of different marine projects since then. During my honours year I was associated with the Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (C·I·B) and examined the potential establishment of invasive marine species in the sub-Antarctic region.


Melissa with turtle


My interest for marine turtles started during a herpetology course, and decided to do my Master’s degree (2009/11), under the supervision of Dr Ronel Nel at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), working with marine turtles in KwaZulu-Natal. My research investigated incubation (sand) temperatures that influence loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) hatchling sex ratios in a high density nesting site. Sex of turtle embryos are determined by incubation temperatures, i.e. high temperatures (> 29°C) produce more females and lower temperatures produce more males (< 29°C). The results indicated female-biased sex ratios for loggerhead turtles in this region and with global climate changes this may worsen to a point where only females will ultimately be produced. However, more data is needed to conclude whether conservation strategies need to be revised, e.g. the possible implementation of hatcheries where incubation temperatures are controlled. In 2010, I became involved in science communication projects through an organization called South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). I believe that science is important to convey amongst young students and this is also a passion of mine that I will continue to pursue.


Melissa tagging a loggerhead turtle


After completing my MSc, I started an internship at the University of Stellenbosch (2011/12) through DST-NRF with Dr Carol Simon in the marine invertebrate lab. Here, I examined spionid marine worms (Polychaeta) found on farmed and wild abalone in South Africa. These spionids, in high densities, may become pests on abalone farms since the spionids bore into the abalone shells and negatively impact the quality of the flesh and also increase mortality. Since the commercial shellfish industry is rapidly increasing, especially in the past decade, studies surrounding the damage some pest spionids can cause have also increased. The aim of this study was to identify spionid worms found on farmed and wild abalone to establish the overlap of occurring species, and identify problematic spionid species. Boccardia proboscidea is an invasive species that has been recorded on South African abalone farms only, and without any mitigation measures, this species will most likely cause a lot of damage as it has in other regions.


I started my PhD in 2012, registered at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) under the supervision of Prof Mark Gibbons (UWC) and marine invertebrate curator Dr Wayne Florence (Iziko South African Museum). I am based at Iziko South African Museum as an assistant curator and my research project will examine the taxonomy, biogeographical and depth-related distribution patterns of South African bryozoans. Bryozoans (or “moss animals”) have an astonishing diversity, and there are many gaps within the knowledge and understanding of bryozoans along the coast of South Africa. Earlier deep-sea expeditions cruises during late 1800’s and early 1900’s indicated high bryozoan diversity on the south and east coast of South Africa. Shallow-water bryozoans along the coast indicate similar findings in terms of high diversity, and this project aims to shed light on the bryozoans found in the deep-sea west coast region. I will be examining specimens collected and stored at the Natural History Museum of London and the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. In addition, biogeographical and depth-related distribution patterns will be examined to establish whether diversity increase with depth (Rapoport’s bathymetric rule) as seen in many other marine invertebrates.


Melissa K. Boonzaaier


Contact details

Assistant curator (PhD student):

Marine Invertebrate Collections (Bryozoa),

Natural History Department,
Iziko South African Museum,

P.O. Box 61,
Cape Town
South Africa
Tel: +2721 467 7242