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: July 6th, 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

  • Over 600 shelf stations sampled from Angola in the south to Morocco in the north.
  • Approximately 9,000 lots from 550 sampling stations have been sorted from the original samples, mostly identified to higher level taxonomic groups, but more than 500 species have also been identified.
  • Through careful review by taxon and group specialists, the team has identified dozens of new-to-science species. The team has published 15 of these new species, and is currently in the process of publishing 45 additional species.
  • By February 2017, 2,627 samples had been submitted for DNA barcoding in Guelph, Canada, from an estimated 617 species.
  • Work 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).
  • At the 12th International Polychaete Conference, the group contributed four oral and eight poster presentations using data based on MIWA specimens.
  • To date, nine theses (including PhD, MSc, and BSc) have utilized material from this project, including five students from the University of Bergen, one from the University of Moscow, and three from the University of Vigo.
  • In total six training activities occurred, including 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).
  • The team hosted over 35 research visits, including scientists from Columbia, France, Ghana, Mauritania, Nigeria, and the UK.

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 was a bottleneck in the project and put constraints particularly on sample sorting and databasing. Initially, the team was set back by the very low success rate in DNA-barcoding of Polychaeta (bristle worms), but found 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. On the positive side, the partners 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 faciliate consistency in identification, which is critical to a project with such a large geographic scope, particularly working with many newly described fauna.

Further illustrating the importance of consistency in identification, the group’s DNA barcoding revealed several examples of mismatching taxonomic identifications amongst researchers in different labs and institutions in different countries. This illustrates a major challenge, as it has been shown that when benthic fauna is used in standardized methods for quality assessment and monitoring, mismatching identifications produced by different identifiers can have strong effects on indexing and valuation of ecological conditions in the same habitat. Documenting identifications according to the BOLD protocols used in this study will increase the chances of discovering taxonomic errors and discordances, leading to more accurate data for environmental assessments.

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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