MORE than 100 new species of exquisitely coloured soft corals were among the new forms of marine life discovered by Australian researchers. A better understanding of bio-diversity can lead to effective conservation strategies, they say.
Strange-looking jellyfish and parasites that eat the tongues off fish are among the other creatures discovered in an extensive exploration of Australian coral reefs.
Researchers combed the waters off Heron Island and Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, as part of the global Census of Marine Life project.
Julian Caley, a principal research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, AIMS, said they were surprised and excited by the variety of new animals that were found in areas familiar to so many divers.
"Our knowledge of marine life is a proverbial drop in the ocean," Dr Caley said.
The AIMS chief executive officer, Ian Poiner, said reefs faced threats from ocean acidification, pollution, global warming, overfishing and starfish outbreaks.
"Only by establishing a baseline of biodiversity and following through with later censuses can people know the impact of those threats and find clues to mitigate them," said Dr Poiner, who is also chairman of the scientific steering committee for the global census, which will release its first decade of findings in 2010.
The research team, which included scientists from the Australian Museum in Sydney, left plastic "dolls houses" on the ocean floor near Lizard and Heron islands for marine creatures to colonise. They will be collected during the next three years, when further expeditions will be carried out.
Among the weird new creatures found this time were shrimp-like animals with claws longer than their bodies, and one with a long, whip-like back leg.
In separate research, scientists have also identified more than 100 new Australian shark and ray species. A CSIRO taxonomist, Peter Last, said Australia had about 300 species in all, about half of which are found only in these waters.
"With the exception of Indonesia, we have the richest shark and ray fauna on the planet," Dr Last said.
His team used DNA techniques to separate similar looking animals, confirming that an angel shark with big "wing" fins that scouts the seabed off New South Wales was a separate species.
Likewise, the harmless northern river shark was separated from the aggressive bull shark which accounts for many attacks on people in harbours and estuaries.
The dark waters of Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour in south-western Tasmania provide the only known habitat for the dinner-plate sized maugean ray.
Dr Last said that warming seas threatened its habitat. "This ray really hasn't changed much in 80 million years. It would be catastrophic to see it just go in the blink of an eye."