Illuminating Biodiversity of the Ningaloo Canyons

Deep in the Blue of Ningaloo

Alex Ingle/SOI
Mar. 09 2020

Off the coast of Western Australia, deep in the biologically unexplored submarine canyons adjacent to the Ningaloo Reef (a world heritage site), valuable new information and exciting discoveries await the team on board R/V Falkor. Using ROV SuBastian, eDNA (environmental DNA) analysis, and numerous other surveying and sampling techniques, this expedition has the potential to reveal undocumented biodiversity, and unknown species within Cape Range Canyon and Cloates Canyon.

With R/V Falkor clear of the quay, she leaves her berth next to R/V Investigator (Marine National Facility) and continues on for refuelling ahead of the expedition. Meanwhile, the crew recover Atreyu, the small boat, from the water.Alex Ingle/SOI

Exploring New Territory
The remote Western Australian coast is famed for its biological diversity, its  260 kilometre long reef (Australia’s largest fringing coral reef) and its distinctive geology. Surprisingly, however, the deep-sea environment adjacent to this world-famous area remains almost unexplored; a gap in our knowledge which Dr Nerida Wilson and her team are keen to fill.

Dr Nerida Wilson (Chief Scientist, Western Australian Museum) and her colleagues from the science team take part in an obligatory emergency drill before the start of their cruise. Everyone on board must be familiar with the ship and with abandon ship procedures.Alex Ingle/SOI

A diverse group has come together with the aim of identifying and characterizing the benthic biodiversity in Cape Range and Cloates Canyons while complementing Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) surveys with environmental genetics (eDNA). Spanning multiple institutions (Western Australian Museum, Perth; Curtin University, Perth; Geoscience Australia; Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA; Macquarie University and the Australian Museum), Dr. Nerida Wilson and her team will be adopting a groundbreaking comparative approach for deep-sea survey techniques in Australia that have the potential to yield a much greater understanding of the biodiversity present in these areas, reveal new species descriptions, and create higher resolution mapping of the canyons.

Beyond The Lens
In addition to documenting and collecting animals with ROV SuBastian, researchers will be using eDNA to assess the effectiveness of ROV methodology by extracting DNA from water samples. This amazing technique allows researchers to gather information on marine life through tiny traces of DNA in the ocean, which can reveal animal life that may not be encountered during the ROV surveys. In other words, what is not discovered through the lenses of ROV SuBastian will be revealed through trace eDNA analysis; providing scientists with invaluable complementary datasets for comparison.

Dr Glenn Moore (Curator, Western Australian Museum) begins preparing a small benthic fish trap which will be used to assess sea floor biodiversity.Alex Ingle/SOI

Discovering, Mapping, and Protecting
The results from this cutting-edge research will lead to a greater understanding of survey efficiency, and will provide a unique insight into the biodiversity of the Gascoyne Marine Park’s deep water habitats – an area of which only 44% is currently mapped. Also helping to fill some of these gaps will be R/V Falkor’s EM302 deep water multibeam system, which will be re-mapping the seafloor during the night hours. Through this work, the goal is to improve our understanding of Ningaloo Canyons’ habitats, an essential task in order to manage and protect such areas for generations to come.

Tony McCann (Navigation Officer) and his colleagues from the deck team stand on Falkor’s forecastle deck as they depart. With other ships nearby, great care must be taken when manoeuvring the ship.Alex Ingle/SOI

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