Polychaeta are segmented worms – they are mostly marine, and are so numerous and diverse that they are ecologically dominant in many marine habitats. Polychaete research at Museum Victoria is led by Dr Robin Wilson. His primary research interests are:
A primary research goal has been the provision of identification guides for ecologists and other marine biologists who need to identify Polychaeta accurately for their research.
This work resulted in the publication in 2003 of Polychaetes: an interactive identification guide on CD, allowing the identification of all 1200 known Australian Polychaete species. Currently Dr Wilson and his co-authors are revising this information for online publication in the Encyclopaedia of Life.
Polychaetes are so abundant and widespread that they are ideal for bioregional analysis – studies comparing patterns of diversity around the Australian coast. Dr Wilson is now collaborating with colleagues elsewhere in Australia to generate large databases for bioregional analysis.
Research into evolutionary relationships will allow us to reach a better understanding of the origin of Australia’s marine life. This is the goal of studies now being undertaken by Dr Wilson on three Polychaete families: Nereididae (with Dr Chris Glasby of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and Dr Torkild Bakken of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Phyllodocidae, and Polynoidae (with Dr Kristian Fauchald of the Smithsonian Institution).
Evaluation of cosmopolitan and introduced Polychaete species
Not all Australian Polychaeta can be readily identified. Some species are, or might be, introduced from other parts of the world, and identification guides for these species are now being provided at the PaDIL (Pests and Diseases Image Library) web site.
Other species are sometimes thought of as having cosmopolitan distributions but may in reality comprise a number of similar, undescribed species. One such study with Honours student Liz Dane from The University of Melbourne will address these questions to explain the occurrence of the fan worm Myxicola infundibulum in southern Australia.
Estuarine biogeography of Nereididae
Estuaries are a little like islands – each one is a river mouth where freshwater flows mean that the water is less salty than surrounding seawater. Animals that live in these habitats usually cannot live away from the estuary and therefore exist as isolated populations. Good examples are the various estuarine “sandworm” species popular as fish bait (Polychaeta of the family Nereididae).
Research into the genetic relatedness between these populations is aimed at understanding the role of past climate and sea-level change in the evolution of marine and estuarine life in Australia.