Australia Echinoderm Expedition – 2015

Kalia, Elliot and Ian traveled to Australia in December 2015 to survey echinoderm viruses. The following are blog posts related to field collections and research. More information on the complete trip may be found in the “blog posts” section on this site:

Tuesday night to our first fieldwork day at the Moreton Bay Research Station, North Stradbroke Island (Straddie). So excited to finally get into the water, get some samples, and see some really cool stuff! After a quick stop at the Ithaca Ice Works (yes, it’s in Brisbane in the suburb of Lytton) for some dry ice, the team caught the vehicular ferry Minjerribah from Cleveland to Dunwich.

The team totally excited to be heading for some fieldwork!

After arrival at MBRS, they were induced (given a safety induction), before hitting the tidal flats in front of the station. There, the team had great success finding our first amphipods and echinoderms.

A common holothurian, Holothurian scabra (left), and amphipods (right) collected on the One Mile Harbor flats.

After a successful collection trip, they spent about 3 hours processing samples for tissues, documenting each sample taken for our permits, and making sure that animals were returned if possible.


Grad students looking serious in the lab.

Ian has a long history at Straddie, having being involved in various field courses and fieldwork early in his career. It’s been a bit of a trip down memory lane! He first came to Straddie during the Marine Botany Group’s intensive sampling in 1997, traveling over to Dunwich with Bill Dennison (mentor) and Andrew Watkinson (fellow undergrad schlep) in the middle of the night – an event which changed his future forever. He then participated in numerous field trips to Straddie, including field courses in estuarine ecology run by Greg Skilleter (invert zoologist at UQ), and performing his own research at the station into marine viruses in the late 90s and early 00s. The station was completely rebuilt in about 1999 – the old station buildings were sold to the local high school and transported intact there, where they remain today. MBRS remains one of the most incredibly places at which researchers can perform their stuff, and classes can meet to learn about marine ecology. Ian and Ian have been working on plans for students to come to Straddie as part of a combined UQ-Cornell course in marine ecology.

After a busy day, Ian, Kalia and Elliot traveled to Point Lookout for a bit of sightseeing and dinner before hitting the hay (remarkably early at 9:30pm).

The tides today saw a high just after dawn, so not the best for intertidal sampling. Hence, the team had a relatively easy morning preparing for a boating trip late morning. Ian Tibbetts arrived around 9:30 am, and then the team + Ian boarded the R/V Glaucus (one of the station’s small runabouts… the other being the R/V Pelagia, a boat Ian had taken from Ipswich, some 60 km upriver, to Straddie, and many places in-between between 1997 and 2000).


The venerable Pelagia… still kicking it after 20 years in service. This boat is actually one of the driving forces for getting Ian into marine science!

After a short trip across relatively calm water, the team arrived at the Wanga Wallen Banks, north of Dunwich and Myora, and quickly got into the water to grab some inverts.

The team looking super excited/impressed, so far…

Underwater scenes of Wanga Wallen – LOADS of sea cucumbers (holothurians) and asteroids (sea stars).

After scouting around, the team found quite a few chocolate chip stars (Pentaceraster) nestled in seagrass beds, which were collected for further work. The team also found quite a large number of Holothuria spp, which were also collected for work back in the lab.


Pentaceraster sp. in a bed of Cymodocea sp.

After about 10 mins in the water, Kalia and Elliot had collected quite a few of these animals, so we sped off to another site.

Elliot handing up samples, and the haul of Holos (top) and asteroids (bottom).

The team then went to Amity Banks, where they recovered several specimens of collector urchin, Tripneustes gratilla, and some Cenolia sp., the feather star.

Samples of Tripneustes granola (left), a feather star (top right) taken at Amity Point (bottom right)

Having secured a bunch of cool samples, the team had one last task: collect zooplankton from the bay.


Plankton netting off the Glaucus in Rainbow Channel

Back in the lab, the team set about dissecting and subsampling animals. We try, wherever possible, to perform leas-destructive sampling, and prefer not to kill animals if necessary. However, sometimes animals decide to do this for themselves. Holothurians, for example, as a defense mechanism will eviscerate (eject their internal organs) – it’s quite dramatic, but unavoidable sometimes! However, looking on the bright side, it allows us to sample internal organs without needing to kill the animal! This happened to a few today, documented here.


A totally eviscerated Holothuria sp.

Some of the awesome samples the team worked on today.

Tomorrow morning, the team will be collecting some samples for a colleague (Morgan Eisenlord) before returning to UQ to transfer samples to a liquid N2 dewar and then up to the Sunshine Coast for some RnR. But an awesome visit to Straddie, with many fantastic samples in tow!

After a quick trip on the “Tilt train” from Cooroy to Gladstone, Ian, Kalia, Elliot and honorary team member Ian’s Mum took the 2 1/2 hr fast cat ride to the beautiful Heron Island. Ian had been to Heron numerous times in the past 20 years; first on undergraduate field trips and a research trip in 1997 – 2000, then as a graduate student in 2002, and finally as a postdoc in 2006. Returning to Heron with graduate students of his own definitely made him feel old!

Some of the amazing facilities of the ‘new’ Heron Island Research Station (top) and the Shearwater House (old Director’s House) (bottom).

Upon arrival at the island, after a brief and relaxed safety induction by Scientific Officer Lochie, and meeting up with long-time staff member Maureen Roberts, the team got comfy at the almost completely rebuilt research station facilities. The station had been recently renovated in the early 00s prior to a fire which basically burnt down almost all of the refurbished buildings – and was again completely rebuilt by 2009. Really impressive facilities now for both the anticipated Cornell-UQ field course, as well as for microbiological/marine disease research!

Front and back entrance to the field station

The following morning, the team went out on the low tide (6:00am) to sample some echinoderms and amphipods. Remembering the ecology as it was, Ian anticipated that the reef would be totally covered in some common sea stars, like Linckia laevigata. But after searching around for over an hour, it became clear that there had been some major changes in the past 20 years. There were almost no sea stars, no urchins, but loads of holothurians on the reef flat.

Some of the ‘common’ echinoderms on the reef – top left is Linckia laevigata, under that an Ophidiaster sp., and to the right Holothuria atra.

By the end of the first reef walk, the team had collected only 2 Linckia, but had managed to collect some ‘algal shakes’ – which are used to dislodge meiofauna. Back in the lab, the group set about analyzing these and found an astonishing diversity of amphipod morphologies!

Amphipods shaken off of macro algae from the reef flat.

Later in the day, the group went snorkeling to see if we could find more echinoderms. As there were high tides at midday, snorkeling was the best way to get out and see the sights.


Not a bad snorkel sight…

Some of the sights of the reef…

That evening, the team were introduced to the wide array of birds on the island who basically are there to keep you up all night. The most common are Noddy Terns, which build nests in the trees above. They are also easy prey for Pisonia (tree) seeds which get stuck in their primaries and kill the birds – delivering vital nutrients to the island itself. Shearwaters (mutton birds) come in at night and call with the sound of dying children. Herons (egrets actually) wander around the reef, picking off chicks.

The bottom two are goners…

Day 15 broke with submarine activities: Kalia and Elliot took off for a non-scientific, recreational dive (note, non-scientific – no science was performed whatsoever…) while Ian and his mum went for a glass bottom boat ride. Out in the non-science zone, Kalia and Elliot saw several feather stars (Cenolia sp.), and Ian saw one crown of thorns (Acanthaster plank). However, our permits did not cover collections in the areas we went, so it was just observation recreationally!

Busy morning at the jetty – Elliot and Kalia went out diving, Ian and his mum went on a glass bottom boat ride.

In the afternoon, the group again went snorkeling to find more sea stars, with some success: we found another couple of Linckia and also sampled Holothuria atra.

As the trip progressed, we realized we were nowhere near obtaining all the specimens we’d set out to find, so the following morning (Day 16) resolved to walk on the reef for as long as possible during the low tide (at 9am). Hence, we forged ahead and covered pretty much the entire Scientific Collecting Zone in 5 hrs on the reef – heading out when the water was still falling and coming back to HIRS when the water was waist high. Our efforts paid off – we not only found another 3 sea stars, and our quota of holothurians, but also recovered excellent samples of amphipods and copepods to boot.

The team packed that afternoon in anticipation of an early start the following day. There is so much planning and paperwork that goes into this type of expedition – and even shipping samples out of Australia is a bit of a headache without a lot of advance planning.

The following morning (Day 18), the team boarded the cat back to Gladstone, hopped on a plane to Brisbane, where they caught the latest Star Wars film (!!!!!!) prior to hitting the hay.

The morning of Day 19 saw Ian, Kalia and Elliot work with Dana Burfiend (UQ) to pack up the samples we’d taken at Heron into our dry shipper. But not before a spectacular disposal of liquid N2 at an undisclosed location in 95 degree heat!


This doesn’t look suspicious at all, does it?

The dry shipper was delivered to Fedex at Brisbane airport, and is currently on its way to the US (via Sydney, Guangzhou, Tokyo, Alaska, Memphis and Syracuse, apparently). Fingers crossed it gets in on time.

After saying farewell, the team broke up to our own destinations. Ian headed to Noosa for the holidays with his family. Kalia was bound for Portland. Elliot is bound for New Zealand for a week of fun. The team will reunite in Seattle in only 2 weeks for a research cruise. But for the Australia Expedition, it’s a wrap!!

Publications from this Expedition:

Hewson I, Johnson MR, Tibbetts I (2020) “An unconventional flavivirus and other RNA viruses in the sea cucumber (Holothuroidea; Echinodermata) virome” Viruses 12: 1057

Jackson EW, Wilhelm RC, Johnson MR, Lutz HL, Danforth I, Gaydos JK, Hart MW, Hewson I (2020) “Diversity of sea star-associated densoviruses and transcribed endogenized viral elements of densovirus origin” Journal of Virology DOI: 10.1128/JVI.01594-20

Jackson EW, Pepe-Ranney C, Debenport SJ, Buckley DH, Hewson I (2018) “The microbial landscape of sea star and anatomical and interspecies variability of their microbiome” Frontiers in Microbiology.