Understanding coral reefs takes more than meets the eye

23 April 2021

Reef research at Museum of Tropical Queensland has been bolstered by the welcome addition of a new phylogeneticist, increasing the museum’s focus on investigating coral biodiversity.

Senior Curator of Biosystematics, Dr Peter Cowman, jointly appointed by Queensland Museum Network’s Project DIG and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU), will join the reef and biodiversity team. He brings more than12 years of expertise in the specialist field of DNA analysis to the role.

“Analysis of coral phylogenetics (or phylogenetic data) is an essential part of understanding the diversity and biogeography of the Great Barrier Reef,” Dr Cowman said.

“This research will effectively inform reef conservation efforts by providing key stakeholders with a better understanding of coral species names, location and their abundance.”

Biosystematics explores the diversification of species, both past and present, and the relationships among those species through evolutionary time.

In the past, coral species were identified primarily by the physical characters of the coral skeleton. However, analysing coral DNA is providing scientists with a new understanding of the diversity and evolution of corals.

Importantly, it is suggesting that there is greater species diversity across the Great Barrier Reef than currently thought; therefore, more specialist work is required to understand coral species distributions and their genetic characteristics.

Dr Cowman will work alongside current Senior Curator of Corals, Queensland Museum and Coral CoE at JCU Dr Tom Bridge, and other researchers across the globe. Together, they will analyse a large variety of coral specimens and develop a coral repository of essential taxonomy data including coral tissue samples for DNA analysis, combined with voucher specimens and high-resolution images of living colonies in the field.

Queensland Museum Network CEO Dr Jim Thompson said these significant joint appointments are creating mutually beneficial opportunities for both organisations.

“We welcome this chance to deliver real world benefits with this research focus, whilst utilising the incredible expertise of our scientists and the extensive coral collections held at Museum of Tropical Queensland,” Dr Thompson said.

Director of Coral CoE, Professor Graeme Cumming said Dr Cowman is a globally recognised phylogenetics expert and they look forward to continuing their excellent working relationships with both Dr Cowman and Queensland Museum Network.

“Coral taxonomy is fundamental to our Centre's ongoing evolutionary and ecological research on coral reef biodiversity. This appointment will provide exciting opportunities for long-term collaborations between the museum and the Centre,” Dr Cumming said.

Learn more about how Queensland Museum Network’s Project DIG is supporting coral reef research. Visit https://projectdig.qm.qld.gov.au/

Media Contact: Andrea Hughes

(07) 4726 0604 or 0497 347 117 andrea.hughes@qm.qld.gov.au