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Dusting off South African starfish

By Lara Atkinson (SAEON) and Christopher Mah (Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC)
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Makeshift work space at Iziko Museum (under renovation) where Dr Christopher Mah spent most of his three weeks in South Africa working through the 40-year backlog of Asteroidea specimens

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Dr Christopher Mah inspiring minds during his public lecture at the Two Oceans Aquarium, titled What's so Important about Deep-Sea Diversity? A survey of slime stars, deep-sea corals, hydrothermal vents and more!

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Rarely seen Hymenaster lamprus, not observed in South Africa since the 1930s

The last time an expert starfish taxonomist catalogued or researched South African starfish (Asteroidea) was more than 40 years ago, and even then, this was done remotely.

The asteroid fauna in the South African region has been documented in three primary monographs, first by Hubert Lyman Clark in 1923, followed by Theodor Mortensen in 1933 and finally summarised by Ailsa Clark and Jane Courtman-Stock in 1976, with further work done by Ailsa Clark in 1977. Since then, no further significant work has been focused on starfish from South Africa.

It is also worth noting that none of the authors of these historical accounts ever visited South Africa. These accounts were based on specimens shipped to the respective museums where the scientists worked.

Since 2007, several research initiatives have explored and sampled South Africa's deeper, offshore habitats. These projects have resulted in a substantial increase in unidentified deepsea Asteroidea specimens being housed at the Iziko Museum of South Africa, or with individual researchers.

Enter Dr Christopher Mah ...

Based at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Dr Mah is an internationally recognised expert taxonomist on Asteroidea. Through funding awarded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Knowledge, Interchange and Collaboration (KIC) Grant to Dr Lara Atkinson, SAEON was finally able to bring a starfish expert to South Africa to work on its current Asteroidea collection.

Dr Mah was officially the first starfish taxonomist to spend time working on South African starfish in South Africa!

During Dr Mah's three-week visit to Cape Town (25 May until 12 June 2015), Dr Lara Atkinson and her colleagues aimed to address three core aspects of South African starfish taxonomy: 1) identify and catalogue the existing starfish collection housed at Iziko Museum; 2) confirm and complete approximately 40 descriptive starfish species pages of the offshore invertebrate identification guide; and 3) engage with and build capacity with a South African PhD student, Erich Koch, currently researching starfish taxonomy.

Broad-spectrum science engagement

Additionally, SAEON held three public events that enabled broader engagement with the scientific community, citizen scientists, young school learners, educators and members of the public.

The first of these events was an Asteroidea taxonomy training workshop hosted by Iziko Museum and the SeaKeys project of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). A total of 20 people (the maximum number possible to fit in the room), ranging from citizen scientists to expert taxonomists, students and ecological researchers, participated in the workshop. Through this unique combination of skills being brought together in one room, some photographs from a citizen scientist of a starfish (Goniasterid) feeding are being matched with museum occurrence data and with Dr Mah's expertise, will yield some interesting information that will be published in scientific literature.

A second event was kindly hosted by the Two Oceans Aquarium where Dr Mah presented a riveting public seminar on the evening of 2 June titled What's so Important about Deep-Sea Diversity? A survey of slime stars, deep-sea corals, hydrothermal vents and more! This public talk was very well received by the marine science community with all 100 seats being booked out within four hours of opening the reservations! Fortunately 10 seats were pre-reserved for Grade 10 learners from Sophumelela High School to attend this lecture and gain exposure to fascinating facts about the deep ocean biodiversity.

Dr Mah also presented a lecture at the Biological Sciences Department of the University of Cape Town titled New perspectives in Starfish Phylogeny: Data from Phylogenomics and Paleontology. At each of these events, Dr Mah generated much interest, much discussion and had the audience hanging on every word he said, reflecting his passion for starfish and enthusiasm in sharing his knowledge.

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Three species of starfish that Dr Christopher Mah confirmed as range extensions in South African waters: A) Gilbertaster anacanthus, B) Calliaster mamillifer and C) Glyphodiscus perierctus

Most of Dr Mah's time in Cape Town was spent working through the Iziko Museum starfish collection, which is currently housed in a temporary location while renovations are underway at the museum. He powered his way through classifying, cataloging and identifying 686 individual starfish specimens.

Exciting finds

Some of the most exciting "finds" from working through the collection include:

  • The re-discovery of the rarely seen Hymenaster lamprus, not seen in South Africa since the 1930s (see photo).
  • Range extension records of the rarely encountered deep-sea Gilbertaster anacanthus, Calliaster mamillifer (Indian Ocean) and Glyphodiscus perierctus, previously known only from the Pacific.
  • Recognition of up to seven possible new, undescribed species (and possibly one new genus) recovered from historical collections in deep-waters off South Africa, specifically along the east coast. These new species are currently being described in collaboration with South African researchers.

Additionally Dr Mah not only confirmed and completed descriptions for the exisiting starfish pages in the identification guide, but added four new species to the guide. He provided guidance on curation techniques for museum staff, engaged with PhD student Erich Koch and has proposed at least five new starfish taxonomic research projects for future postgraduate studies.

Dr Mah used social media to share his findings and experiences from South Africa through his blog and various twitter accounts (@echinoblog, @MarineBio_SAM, @SANCORcommunity and @JenniferOlbers).

It was unanimously agreed among all those who engaged with him that Dr Chris Mah's three-week visit to South Africa exceeded expectations. During this short visit, he not only worked through a 40-year backlog of collections, but also engaged widely with the marine science community, made friends wherever he went, capacitated museum staff and generally inspired a large number of South African researchers and the public on the importance of taxonomy and biodiversity in general.

SAEON and the South African marine science community would like to sincerely thank Dr Christopher Mah for giving of his time and sharing his vast knowledge with us. Dr Mah continues to interact with many of us on a daily basis.

SAEON also gratefully acknowledges the NRF KIC Grant, SANBI SeaKeys Programme, University of Cape Town and Iziko Museums for enabling the success of Dr Mah's visit.

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