University of Bergen Museum (2012)

West African Marine Biodiversity

Project Details

Grantee Organization: University of Bergen Museum
Grant Amount: $ 288,000
Contact: Endre Willassen
Contact Email: endre.willassen 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 6/15/12 - 6/13/15


GNT60230 Bergen LogoOur sensitivity to changes in biodiversity depends fundamentally on our ability to identify the species in these changing ecosystems. Marine ecosystems of the coastal zones are vulnerable to effects of human activities at sea or in the terrestrial surroundings. In many of the West African countries there is limited trained technical capacity to meet the needs for species information, environmental analysis, and conservation management. A general paucity of species identification tools is a key issue. This project will use benthic samples from R/V Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (see also The EAF-Nansen project) to advance better and more transparent knowledge about animals living along the coastal shelf of West African.

Key Objectives and Activities

  • Prepare unsorted and unstudied samples of West African shelf fauna for species identification and biodiversity studies.
  • Evaluate and standardize species taxonomies by use of morphology studies and molecular methods.
  • Produce and provide open access documentation of species identification tools and species distribution data.
  • Assess biogeographic uniqueness and biodiversity hot spots. Contribute to African capacity building in the marine biodiversity sciences and better understanding of the taxonomic components of marine ecosystems.
  • Contribute increased awareness of marine biodiversity among the general public.
  • Contribute improved insight for sociocultural valuations and national and international management policies.

Planned Outputs and Outcomes

  • A species-identified and well-curated scientific collection (ICOM-standard)
  • Georeferenced species (Darwin core) occurrence data for open access web databases
  • Contributed DNA barcodes with pictures and vouchered specimens (BOLDsystems)
  • Field guides to select faunal groups
  • Training in methodologies and biodiversity knowledge

Last Updated: February 28th, 2017

Software Platforms

Occurrence data are recorded with Excel and Access and will be prepared for publication in OBIS / GBIF. Google Fusion tables are used for small scale data exchange and geographical mapping on the web. BOLDSYSTEMS is primarily used for DNA-barcoding activities.

Results to Date

More than 600 shelf stations have been sampled from Angola in the south to Morocco in the north. Approximately 9,000 lots have been sorted from the original samples, mostly identified to higher level taxonomic groups, but more than 500 species have also been identified. A single station sample can contain individuals from up to 30 families of Polychaeta alone (bristle worms). Identification to the species level for this group requires microscopy and is particularly time-consuming. However, the work is rewarding when uncovering the rich diversity in a little-described portion of the ocean. Through careful review by taxon and group specialists, the team has identified dozens of new-to-science species. By February 2016, 1,519 samples had been submitted for DNA barcoding in Guelph, Canada, from an estimated 408 species. Training activities have included multiple species identification workshops, some focusing on particular groups such as mollusks (summer 2014, read more here), and brittle stars (fall 2014, read more here). These meetings and research visits draw on the knowledge of group experts and help ensure consistent classification of species. In addition, some of the work that has been conducted on DNA barcoding was presented by Dr. Willassen at the 8th International Crustacean Congress, highlighting the need to integrate DNA and taxonomic information to clarify species delimitation (read more here).

Related Publications

  • Malaquias, MAE; LT Ohnheiser; TR Oskars; E Willassen (2016) Diversity and systematics of philinid snails (Gastropoda: Cephalaspidea) in West Africa with remarks on the biogeography of the region. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12478. (link)
  • Budaeva, N; D Schepetov; J Zanol; T Neretina; E Willassen (2016) When molecules support morphology: Phylogenetic reconstruction of the family Onuphidae (Eunicida, Annelida) based on 16S rDNA and 18S rDNA. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 94(Part B): 791-801. (link)

Lessons Learned

Technical work force is a bottleneck in the project and puts constraints particularly on sample sorting and databasing. The team was somewhat set back by the very low success rate in DNA-barcoding of Polychaeta (bristle worms), but are working to find solutions in new protocols and primer sets. Developing appropriate primers for relatively understudied groups is almost always a challenge for studies on the frontiers of molecular work in species delimitation. They were also surprised to discover how challenging it can be for an African invitee to obtain a visa to participate in a workshop in Norway. On the positive side, the partners have completed several fun and productive workshops, underscoring the importance of convening partners, and drawing on global expertise to get all technicians working on identification on the same taxonomic page, so to speak. These meetings ensure consistency in identification, which is critical to a project with such a large geographic scope, particularly working with many newly described fauna.

Project Director Biography

Endre Willassen has been a professor at the University of Bergen, where he teaches zoology, evolutionary biology, phylogenetics, since 1996, and was previously adjunct professor of zoology at University of Nordland (1998-2002). Since 1983, he has been keeper of the University of Bergen Museum collection of invertebrates, housing material from two centuries of species inventories. He has participated in the MAR-ECO project in the Census of Marine Life, and in the establishment of the International Barcode of Life. Dr Willassen’s biodiversity interests span from taxonomy, via phylogenetics and evolutionary history, to environmental change.

Notes from JRS

The marine ecosystems of the coastal zone are the most vulnerable to effects of human activities in densely populated and/or highly exploited areas. Changes in benthic species composition can be used as proxies of environmental change and can signal long or short term direct or indirect consequences of human activities at sea or in the terrestrial surroundings. Human sensitivity to such changes in biodiversity certainly depends fundamentally on our ability to identify the species components in such potentially transforming ecosystem. From an ecological point of view, a good understanding of the linkage between animals at different trophic levels and their environmental requirements is fundamental to the success of any conservation enterprise. The project is somewhat unique within the JRS grant portfolio for the degree to which it is engaged in primary sample collection and identification, and JRS recognizes the West African coast as a relatively unexplored region but one which will be sensitive to ecosystem and climate change. An important part of the grant is the training and collaboration with West African partners. Several countries now have emergent biodiversity information efforts and we look forward to learning about the impact and sustainability of this training as well as other JRS projects in the region.  As 2016 begins, this project has been extremely productive in elucidating the primary taxonomy of the species of interest and the coming year promises to be highly productive.  The team has developed a few promising collaborations with West African scientists though the original aspirations of partnerships and training have not been met.  We’ve learned from this experience and others the importance of very long-term cultivation of partnerships to ensure their success.

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