Robin Wilson

Senior Curator, Marine Invertebrates

Robin Wilson
Robin Wilson
Source: Robin Wilson

Dr Robin Wilson has studied marine invertebrates for 30 years, especially segmented marine worms known as polychaetes which dominate marine environments.


Robin has a life-long interest in natural history, and in particular is drawn to small, cryptic and less well-known organisms – where most of the diversity is. It was natural, therefore, that Robin would become interested in the diversity of polychaete worms commonly found in marine environments.

Humans usually become aware of polychaetes only if they are anglers who use them as bait, but polychaetes are among the most diverse and abundant marine invertebrates in the seas. Scientists studying change in marine environments also need to identify polychaetes reliably and efficiently. This is no trivial task, since there are so many species, and since so many are unstudied and undescribed. Thus Robin describes new species but is especially interested in exploring other means of making taxonomic information available to those who need it and who often don’t or won’t use taxonomic papers. Hence the publication, with colleagues, of Polychaetes, an interactive identification tool for all polychaete families and genera worldwide and all 1,200 Australian polychaete species known to that point. He has also contributed marine pest information to the innovative identification tool Pests and Diseases Image Library. New online strategies are now being investigated, including Museum Victoria’s Collections Online project.

Robin is a past president of the Society of Australian Systematic Biologists and is currently a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Australian Biological Resources Study, Australia’s federal funding agency for taxonomic research.

Current activities

Revision and phylogeny of scale worms (Polychaeta: Polynoidae)

In collaboration with Dr Kristian Fauchald at the Smithsonian Institution, Robin is reviewing scale worms which occupy habitats from rock pools to specialised niches in the deep sea and are often commensal on other marine invertebrates. Scale worms are arguably the pinnacle of polychaete diversity with more than 800 species world-wide, but this diversity is a challenge to taxonomists, and to our understanding of evolutionary relationships of these fascinating animals. This project aims to remove the scales from our eyes by generating an evolutionary analysis of all genera and thus to begin to explain when and how these animals came to occupy such diverse habitats.

Sandworm biogeography (Polychaeta: Nereididae)

If any polychaete family can be said to be well-known in Australia, it is the sandworms – familiar to anglers as bait and to wading birds as fuel for their migrations. This project, in collaboration with Chris Glasby at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, uses the 120+ known Australian sandworm species to test existing bioregions and marine reserves and to discover historical factors that explain current distribution patterns.

Documenting polychaete diversity in Australia

This is a number of projects but with a over-arching goal: to enable biologists to identify Australian polychaetes reliably and to understand what this tells us about marine biodiversity in Australia. Despite the recent publication of the Polychaetes interactive identification CD, recent expeditions continue to discover many new species. Robin and colleagues in Australia and overseas are describing new species in families including Eulepethidae, Nereididae, Opheliidae, Polynoidae, Scalibregmatidae and Spionidae and clarifying the identity of an introduced species of fan worm in the family Sabellidae. The results will be incorporated into a new online edition of the Polychaetes identification tool. The data generated are also part of the output of the Marine Biodiversity Research Hub, a collaboration including Museum Victoria aimed at producing predictive models and tools to better understand and manage marine environments around Australia.

Marine field guides

Robin is closely involved with production of the Museum Victoria series Guides to Marine Life. He was co-author of the first title, An Introduction to Marine Life (2007), and is now editing future titles including one on nudibranchs and their relatives by Museum Victoria Honorary Associate Robert Burn.

Past students

Matt McArthur (B.Sc. Honours)
Systematics and introduced status of Euchone (Polychaeta: Sabellidae) in Port Phillip Bay, and the feeding biology of Euchone limnicola. (1997)
Co-supervision with Dr Paul Boon Victoria University of Technology

Huon McDiarmid (B.Sc. Honours)
The systematic and ecology of polychaetes that bore into abalone shells in Victoria. (2001)
Co-Supervision with Dr Rob Day, The University of Melbourne

Timothy O'Hara (Ph.D.)
Patterns of diversity for subtidal reef assemblages of Victoria, Australia. (2001)
Co-Supervision with Dr Graeme Watson and Prof. David Macmillan, The University of Melbourne

Katrina Lee (B.Sc. Honours)
The diversity and endemism of the family Serpulidae (Annelida: Polychaeta) in south-eastern Australia. (2005)
Co-Supervision with Prof. Mick Keough, The University of Melbourne

Melissa Kulinski (B.Sc. Honours)
Is variation in paragnath morphology adaptive in nereidids (Polychaetea: Nereididae)? (2006)
Co-Supervision with Dr Rob Day, The University of Melbourne

Elizabeth Dane (B.Sc. Honours)
Morphological and genetic variation in the cryptic species complex Myxicola infundibulum (Polychaeta, Sabellidae), and its introduction to Australia. (2008)
Co-Supervision with Prof. David Macmillan, The University of Melbourne

Skipton Woolley (M.Sc.)
Marine biodiversity of Australia's western continental margin: developing and testing multi-species distribution models using Polychaeta (Annelida). (2011)
Co-Supervision with Prof. David Macmillan, The University of Melbourne

Last updated 13 February 2013