Science AMA Series: I'm Dr Nerida Wilson, Senior Research Scientist at the Museum of Western Australia. I’m a marine molecular biologist – I work on the biodiversity of aquatic taxa from nudibranchs to sea dragons, discovering new species as I go. I’m here to today to talk about it.

Abstract

Hi everyone, I’m Nerida Wilson Senior Research Scientist at the Museum of Western Australia and Adjunct Research Fellow, University of Western Australia. I work in phylogenetics, biodiversity and systematics.

I’ve been working in taxonomy and classification for around 16 years and I’ve been involved with naming 18 new species, from sea dragons to nudibranchs. I do lots of voyages, expeditions and diving to collect new specimens, but my everyday reality is LOTS of office and lab work.

Most recently I’ve been working towards untangling the systematics of the nudibranch genus Moridilla, which has led to the discovery of a new species. This has been the focus of a competitive naming competition opened up to the public Australia. Talking about as yet unpublished research in long-form radio, and having thousands of people have their say on it has been novel, and I’m happy to answer questions about the experience.

I’ve also just been involved with publishing a paper in Scientific Reports showing that the sister group of nudibranchs+pleurobranchs is the shelled group Ringiculida. We are still making leaps in understanding how sluggy heterobranch groups are related to each other. It's really exciting!

I’m happy to discuss marine taxonomy, scientific collection expeditions and my experience so far in opening up my work to run a public competition as a form of outreach. My colleague - Dr Amber Beavis, who is the project coordinator for the 'Name this Creature' competition - is helping me type the answers.

I will be back at 9 am Western Australia (7 pm ET) to answer your questions, ask me anything!

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Edit: Thanks so much everyone for your questions - I’m really glad we got to all of them! We’ll be checking in a bit later today so happy to answer any follow up questions that arise. If you’d like to know more about the nudibranch we’re naming you can listen to the ABC RN Off Track show Meet the Nameless Nudibranch here. And if you’re curious about what the winning name is, check in for the announcement on the 20th August!

What has been the impact of coral bleaching on the biodiversity of aquatic life in Western Australia? Is there anything we as a general populous should be aware of that you would consider vital to the promotion of aquatic biodiversity?

exlibrisadpugno

Look to be frank, looking at the impact of coral bleaching is outside my area of expertise - this is what ecologists do. But this actually brings up a really good point. Every scientist is a layperson when they move outside of their area of expertise. So if you know any good resources about this - post em up!

But in all seriousness, as a scientist who doesn’t work on the ecology of coral reefs, I think that the preservation of reefs is incredibly important. THAT is a whole other AMA!


How many marine species do you think will go extinct in the next decade, and how will it affect your work?

StormCrow1770

This is a really hard question to answer. Mostly because we know less about the distribution and abundance of marine animals, because they are usually out of sight. Understanding whether a species is at risk of extinction involves an assessment protocol which usually requires more information than we have. A recent study indicated that of the 88 major groups of marine life, only 64 of them had any assessed members.

Basically all we know for sure is that things are changing really fast, but there are just so many unknowns. My job as a taxonomist is to find out exactly what animals we have now, and what animals were around in the past. That way we can try to predict - using the best evidence base possible - what future biodiversity levels might look like and what actions we might take to preserve them.


Hi Nerida, thanks for doing this AMA.

I've seen that the naming competition has been pretty popular in the media - how has your experience been with the media? And is it even important to discuss science in 'traditional' media like television, considering they often want short, snappy soundbites?

moochops

I’ve always found the media to be pretty good really. They do an amazing job of doing things on the spot for live stuff, so they have my full respect. And so I don’t too get bent out of shape when they say something a bit wrong. But it’s been really interesting being on this side of things - before I started doing stuff with the media I would get frustrated when they got things wrong. The more experience I get with working with the media, the more chilled out I get! I just make sure I say the right stuff. I like to try to use multiple media platforms because they’ll reach different demographics. And if people are interested, they’ll follow up. One thing that’s been really fun with this project is the fact that we did both long and short-form work. The Off Track episode is long-form: it goes for half an hour. That means Ann (Jones) and I really had the space to tell the story of this awesome little nudibranch!

There are cringey moments though. For example, when describing the cerata on the back of this nudibranch, somehow the word sausage got used. Now it’s everywhere! And they’re more like bananas than sausages anyhow HAHA!!


with the naming competition, have you set up protocols to stop the boatymcboatface type of idiocy?

freerangechook

The boat naming competition was judged by the number of public votes. We decided to use a panel of experts to judge the competition instead. Naming a species is a bit different from naming a ship, because there are a whole range of rules that need to be followed. These are set out by a regulatory body and the rules are called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

Of course, one of the aims of the boat naming competition was to engage the public. We’re still talking about it – so I think it was a roaring success!!


Dr. Wilson, thanks for taking time to answer questions.

I am curious if you might ever be interested in branching out from nudibranchs into other deep sea taxa?

As far as exploratory science goes, there is no more undiscovered country as compared to the abyss.

Cheers.

Wrathchilde

I don’t actually have to choose, because nudibranchs also occur in the deep sea! For example, I’ve described one from a whale fall in Southern California. The deep sea is indeed very under-investigated, but its also very hard to get access. So the work progresses slowly. I was lucky enough to do a dive in the submersible at some hydrothermal vents in the Pacific. I have also done quite a bit of work in Antarctica, where the continental shelf itself is quite deep (up to 2000m deep in places). But it’s not really ‘the deep sea’. So my work as a researcher has taken me into all kinds of different environments.


Fascinating work. Thanks for advancing research in the understudied ocean.

I am curious about what tools you might be lacking that would help you. For example, the recently developed "plankooka" for sampling larvae near bottom from the AUV Sentry. What do you want/need?

Wrathchilde

Unfortunately what I need are more hours in the day! There is just so much to do - it can be quite overwhelming. Taxonomic research takes a long time, and it takes an equally long time to train up as a taxonomist because there is an incredible amount of detail you need to learn. So we need more taxonomists and we need to retain them over the decades. This means we need more funding for taxonomy, and most importantly we need continuity of support for the field. It feels hard to keep the value of taxonomy as a contemporary currency in the eye of beancounters.

I also need more time sampling in the undersampled environments. Australia’s deep sea (like many others) is really unknown from a biological perspective, and a lot of what we know is from very coarse sampling methods like trawling. We need ROV and submersible effort! If you can afford it, many ROV’s are available here but are set up for the oil and gas industry, so the biological sampling tools are not readily available.


Interesting competition. I hope you get something more than nudi mcnudeierunface. Do you feel this will impact on the legitimacy of your work in your colleague's eyes? Has it been worth it?

clagannie

Definitely. Surprisingly enough, I probably don’t spend enough time worrying about what my colleagues will think! I believe that engaging the public with science is a responsibility of anyone doing science on the taxpayers payroll. I really want to live in a society where people care about science and understood it a little. So a big part of my work as a scientist involves helping people think about aspects of science that they wouldn’t normally come across in their day-to-day life!

So far in the competition, we have had thousands of entries, and most of them have been really thoughtful and creative. I’ve been really impressed with how people have put in the time and effort to do this.


What sampling techniques do you use? Specifically do you use eDNA in conjunction with whole specimens?

fireking99

Most of my work revolves around whole specimens (i.e. entire animals) - observing them, collecting them, dissecting them, and sequencing them. eDNA is a really useful technique when you don’t know what organisms are around in the environment, so it mostly has value as a monitoring or exploration tool. A big part of taxonomic research is that you have a whole specimen that will become a holotype, which is a bit like a standard that dictates what the species looks like. So although there are exceptions, to name a new species, we need more than a trace of DNA.


Would you name something after me?

juggilinjnuggala

Not until I know you, or you bring me a cool undescribed animal! ;-)


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