New research project: diversity in Wallacea

A few weeks ago I wrote about starting an exciting new project at the University of Leeds. At the time I didn’t go into details, but now that I’m a few months in and I am starting to understand what is going, so it’s time to enlighten you as well.

Leaf scorpionfish

Coral reef critter research coming up!

For the next two years I’m part of a team that will study marine biodiversity on coral reefs in central Indonesia. The overarching goal of of the project is to improve the management and conservation of coral reefs by discovering how impacts such as pollution or overfishing change the way coral reefs function. After all, the best way to start solving a problem is by properly understanding it.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than the lofty big goal as the title of the project indicates: “Gradients of marine biodiversity and linkages with eDNA across the Wallacea Region”. There are two components to the project: traditional visual surveys and environmental DNA (“eDNA”) surveys. We will use both methods to create ecological networks and see how they differ when they are threatened by different impacts.

At this point you might be asking a few (logical) questions:

  • Where is the Wallacea region and why do you go there?
  • What is eDNA?
  • What is an ecological network?
  • Why should I care? I came to this site to read about critters!

The Wallacea region is the central part of Indonesia, from Lombok eastward almost all the way to Papua, and up all the way to Halmahera (check out the map below). It was named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who, together with Darwin, developed the theory of evolution. The region represents an interesting boundary area where fauna and flora from the Asian and Australian continents meet. So it is home to some amazing wildlife, but also to a large human population that depends on natural resources to survive. The marine diversity in the region has not been studied very well (except for a few local exceptions), so finding out how healthy the marine ecosystems are is quite important.

Central Indo

The Wallacea Region

Environmental DNA (eDNA for short), is a relatively new method to detect species. I have written about it extensively here if you want a long explanation and background. The method detects tiny fragments of DNA in the water column that are shed through poop, mucus, etc. By filtering and analysing a scoop of water, we can tell what animals (and plants, microbes, etc) live in the water nearby. It’s pretty powerful and very exciting, but still needs a lot of additional testing to know just how precise it is compared to other survey methods.

I will then build ecological network models with all the data we collect. The easiest way to imagine what those are, is to see them as a different kind of food web. Where food webs focus on who eats who, we are more interested in who lives close to who, and who interacts with who. In the ideal situation I will include all the information on fish, corals, algae, invertebrates (crabs, sea stars, etc.) in one big model which will show how they rely on each other. More importantly, it will also show what happens with the networks if sites are overfished or polluted and how that differs from untouched sites.


Example of an interaction network on land, figure by Bohal et al. 2013. Source here.

So yes, my job for the next few years is less critter-focused than before, but it doesn’t mean I will be ignoring them! Besides the obvious fact that there’s a lot of cool critters to be found on the coral reefs I’ll be visiting, I am still involved in a few very cool projects on the side. It’s too early to go into details, but more seahorse and seadragon work is coming up, and even some exciting pygmy seahorse news as well! I’ll regularly be posting updates on the Wallacea project, as well as more critter features, so stay tuned 🙂


Explosions of colour in the centre of marine biodiversity


Sea Safari 6

I recently returned from another liveaboard trip, this time in Raja Ampat. I’m writing this blog in Sorong, after just having disembarked from the Sea Safari 6. We spent 10 days diving both the south and north of Raja and it was pretty spectacular. I was lucky enough that Safari Bali saved me a free spot on the boat again, allowing me to do research. The only thing I had to do in return, was talk about fish, since I do that all the time anyway, I consider this to be a pretty sweet deal.

The Raja Ampat region is found in the east of Indonesia, in the province of West Papua. The name “Raja Ampat” means “Four Kings” and comes from a local legend. The legend tells of 6 eggs that were found and from which 4 kings, a woman and a ghost hatched. In marine biology circles, the area is known as the global centre of marine biodiversity. It lies in the very centre of the Coral Triangle and is home to nearly 600 coral species and 1600 fish species. For comparison, the entire Caribbean has less than 70 species of coral.


Raja Ampat: Painemu Lagoon


Unknown to most people, the Birds of paradise found here and in the Halmahera region further west also played an important role in publishing the theory of evolution. Between 1854 and 1862 Alfred Russel Wallace traveled and conducted research in Borneo, Sulawesi, Halmahera. He was collecting specimens of all kinds of animals, amongst others the birds of paradise found in the region. His observations of these birds helped him develop his own theory of evolution, parallel to Darwin. Darwin had been working on his manuscript for many years, but was hesitant to publish any of it. A letter from Wallace to Darwin, in which Wallace explained his ideas, sparked Darwin to finally publish his magnum opus. Darwin presented the article “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” in 1858 at the Linnean Society as a joint work from himself and Wallace. Once Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published, Darwin ended up getting all the credit for the theory, but if not for Wallace and his birds of paradise, things could have turned out very different indeed.

While the birds of paradise are pretty amazing (we did go on land for a few hours to try and spot a few), the reason for this trip was to observe the diversity under water. This was the second time I dived Raja Ampat, and I can tell you it is fantastic. I’ve never dived anywhere else where the colours are so…everywhere, just everywhere. The quantity of soft coral, gorgonian seafans, corals, sponges, ascidians, etc is just staggering. You’ll find shades of every colour everywhere, some sites are so overwhelming that you’d almost forget to look for small critters and instead just float around to try and take it all in. Especially when there is a lot of sunlight and strong currents ensure all soft corals look like pink, orange, yellow, purple or white balls of fluff spread out over the reef. One such dive prompted the comment “This must be the campest divesite ever!”, and I couldn’t agree more. Many of the divesites around Raja Ampat look like the marine equivalent of letting a 6 year old kid decorate the Christmas tree…

soft coral

Explosions of colour (source)

Of course the diversity extends beyond corals, the fish life is just as great. It might be harder to find critters than Komdo or Lembeh, but there is a lot to make up for that. One of my favourites are the wobbegongs you find everywhere, especially at the northern divesites. But it’s also great to see all the schooling fish, and a very healthy amount of predators. We’ve seen a fair few sharks, tunas, Spanish mackerels, and other pelagic predators you don’t see very often in Indonesia. It’s also great to see lots of large groupers, since they are a very popular food-species, having a lot around means that protection is working and fishing pressure is not too high.

Fish soup

Fish soup in Pulau Daram

This protection can be credited to the efforts of many local and international NGOs working in the region. Their work helped motivate local and national governments to establish Indonesia’s first MPA (Marine Protected Area) network. Raja’s 15 MPAs protect nearly 6 million hectares of marine habitats. The area is also a shark sanctuary where capture and killing of sharks, rays, dugongs and turtles is prohibited. To me, knowing that this beautiful area is being protected in the best possible way makes diving it an even more rewarding experience.