Research students find a native marine polychaete fire worm
Research students find a native marine polychaete (fire worm)

The Censusing the Aliens Project facilitated by the Moreton Bay Foundation got underway at the end of September. This project is not concerned with UFOs and extra-terrestrials arriving in Moreton Bay. It is about documenting changes in the species living in the Bay.

Over time animals and plants naturally seek out new places to live, and most of the time these organisms end up in areas which are not suitable for them and so over the short to medium term species tend to occupy the same geographic areas.

A number of things can disrupt this normal pattern, including human activities which change the nature of the environment at a location, and so make it suitable for a different set of species. Examples would include pollution, physical changes to the environment such as building new sea walls and changing the temperature for example by releasing warm water from a power station. Human activities can also assist species to find these new habitats by transporting them on the hulls of ships, in ballast water in large cargo vessels or as a stow-away amongst aquaculture stock.

With global heating we are already seeing examples of species changing their geographic distributions – tropical species are turning up in the sub-tropics, sub-tropical species are invading the temperate zone and temperate species are moving into the polar regions. Polar species have no-where to go!

Moreton Bay is potentially a key site for observing these shifts as it lies at the boundary of the warm waters flowing south along the Queensland coast and the cooler water flowing north from NSW. It also receives a large amount of commercial shipping traffic as a result of the successful Port of Brisbane.

The Moreton Bay Foundation is sponsoring the Censusing the Aliens project to investigate the scale of these changes using the animals and plants that live on the Bays rocky shores and sea walls as sentinels of ecological change. The study is led by Professors Chris Frid and Kylie Pitt from Griffith University and is a collaboration between Griffith University, QUT, University of Queensland and the University of the Sunshine Coast.

The first surveys occurred between September and November. Teams visited shores throughout the Bay and surveyed the shores for potential new colonists. 70 specimens and 100 photographs were collected by the project teams and are currently being identified. Suspected ‘aliens’ will be referred to specialists at the Queensland Museum for confirmation of its status.

Survey teams consisted of students from the areas universities who put their newly acquired knowledge and skills to use, and included local and interstate and international students, from New Zealand, Brazil, France, China the UK and USA. The surveys provided the volunteers with an opportunity to gain experience, build familiarity with our native animals and plants and to build networks and friendships across the community – and to identify potential aliens!

The 2019 surveys can provide a baseline for future repeat surveys that will provide an on-going assessment of the changes in Moreton Bay driven by human activities.

Broad-fronted mangrove crab (Metopagrapsus frontalis) reacts to the survey team at Cleveland Point shore
Broad-fronted mangrove crab (Metopagrapsus frontalis) reacts to the survey team at Cleveland Point shore
QUT and Griffith University surveying Cleveland Point shore for invasive species
QUT and Griffith University surveying Cleveland Point shore for invasive species