Marine conservation efforts in the Seychelles have been boosted by a marine biodiversity study involving The University of Western Australia's Oceans Institute.
According to one of the principal investigators, Dr Dan Smale, from the Oceans Institute, the work will help pave the way for future protection zones to safeguard the islands' unique marine wildlife.
The six-year study recorded the diversity of life in six marine parks in the Seychelles and documented more than 350 species, including two possibly new species. The research team also included scientists from the University of Essex, the Seychelles Government and the non-profit conservation group Earthwatch.
The Seychelles is an archipelago some 1,500km east of mainland Africa. Many of its islands are pristine and teeming with unique wildlife.
Although some marine parks have been established in the Seychelles, previous conservation work has focused on a few, well-known species and much of the marine life has remained a mystery.
"Despite official protection, these parks are under continuous pressure from tourist developments, over-fishing, environmental change and illegal poaching," Dr Smale said.
"This is a really important, fragile ecosystem that's under a lot of different threats but basic ecological knowledge is often lacking. We need evidence to suggest that the marine parks are in the right place and that they are actually beneficial."
The project set out to generate species lists and data that will inform government and conservation agencies of the true ecological importance of these areas.
Dr Smale's team, which focused on the diversity of invertebrates, completed its sampling in December. They discovered more than 350 inter-tidal species. About five per cent of these are endemic to the Seychelles, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth.
Two of the specimens - a crab and large sea cucumber - may even be members of entirely new species.
Under the same project, another team has been assessing the diversity of corals, fish and turtles. Baseline biodiversity levels for a wide range of marine organisms will be useful for assessing future changes in the overall health of the marine parks.
The project also generated a major benefit in conservation training. Eight members of Dr Smale's team were ‘Earthwatch Fellows' from Kenya, India, Mauritius and the Seychelles. They received valuable hands-on experience in taxonomy and ecological sampling.
"Our team sampled a number of species unique to the Seychelles and some that could be a first to science," Dr Smale said. "That's very useful as a conservation tool - it shows how important these marine parks really are."
NB: Images are available upon request.