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Published on August 7th, 2013 | by Daphane Ng

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Maths to Marine Reserves

Several of Australia’s Commonwealth Marine Protected Areas are located where they are thanks to statistical methods developed by University of Tasmania (UTas) PhD graduate Dr Piers Dunstan and his colleagues from the National Environment Research Program Marine Biodiversity Hub, an Australian Government Initiative.

From PhD research looking at marine seabed communities under the jetty at Tasmania’s Maria Island, Piers is now helping make predictions of marine biodiversity that are being used in science and management worldwide.

For a lot of the questions we are trying to answer in marine science, you need maths and statistics skills, Dr Dunstan says. ‘It is a constant process of learning new skills, techniques and ideas that enables me to improve my research,’ he says.

‘My PhD research found that, for the sessile (stationary) seabed communities I was studying, increasing species richness (number of species) led to an increased invasive rate,’ he says.

His explanation for the somewhat counter-intuitive result: the more species you have the less space is available, so the individual organisms are smaller and each colony is smaller. The smaller each colony is, the greater the chance of mortality, which frees up space and provides the opportunity for invasion.

The role of maths? Piers used mathematical ecological models to examine the effects of the size of a patch of marine organisms on community variability, species richness, invasion and the relationships between these factors.

Previously, Piers worked on coral reefs. ‘I started out looking at coral spawning. Some of the patterns I studied made me want to do a PhD in what controlled the dynamics of biological communities. My work evolved and I ended up studying invasions into marine ecosystems. I joined CSIRO to study invasions by feral seastars and how best to manage human activities to reduce their spread.

‘I am now using prediction of marine biodiversity to help underpin science and management decisions on Australia’s current system of Marine Protected Areas.

‘The statistical approaches we developed have been used in decisions on where some of the marine parks were placed.

It is important to make sure that the parks represent the biodiversity found in different regions, and that’s what maths and statistics, in combination with field surveys, can help us determine . We use carefully designed statistical models to predict the locations of biodiversity that are considered particularly valuable and/or representative of a particular region.

We’re also developing new understanding of how marine communities are structured and how they develop. We are now adapting these ideas to look at the impact of different pressures — such as shipping, oil and gas extraction and fishing — on biodiversity , and how these pressures interact to impact on the marine environment in general.

The Marine Biodiversity Hub has links to the University of Tasmania’s (UTAS) specialist Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS).

The CSIRO-UTas PhD Program in Quantitative Marine Science (QMS) is offered through the University of Tasmania’s specialist Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. For more information www.imas.utas.edu.au[subscribe2]