MARE scientists return from East Timor with 30 new species

Expedition focused on nudibranchs, sea slugs

Among other advantages, nudibranchs, or sea slugs, are an important resource: in the case of the pharmaceutical industry, they are frequently used in the investigation of compounds that can be used in the development of new drugs.

The biodiversity of sea slugs (nudibranchs) in East Timor was assessed for the first time in an expedition that included, among others, the collaboration of researchers from MARE.

The investigation focused on the north coast of East Timor between Liquiçá, Dili and Manatutu, with a short incursion on the island of Atauro. Researchers have identified more than 130 different species of nudibranchs, belonging to 55 genera. Of these, around 30 species are new to science – they are now awaiting the formal description process that will later be published in scientific articles.

“The diversity found in Timor-Leste is greater than that in other regions such as the Maldives or Mozambique, and much greater than that found in the Caribbean (Cuba, Bermuda, Costa Rica). It is only comparable to that of the Philippines or Indonesia”, begins by explaining Marta Pola, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid who participated in the expedition. “Taking into account that we were only there for 15 days, and on a single fringe of the north coast of the island, we still have a lot to explore”, adds Joaquim Reis, one of the MARE researchers.

East Timor is located in the so-called “coral triangle”, recognized as the global centre of marine biodiversity and a global priority for conservation. This is where the greatest diversity of marine organisms in the world is found. However, studies on marine biodiversity in East Timor are still practically non-existent.

This expedition to Timor revealed an enormous diversity of species in a little-explored region, with which, in Portugal, we have enormous cultural proximity. “Deeper knowledge of these species brings numerous advantages: it reveals very diverse biological resources that have yet to be discovered and may be useful to humans, for example in the development of new drugs. This collection of information also allows us to detail and make strategic decisions such as the creation of protected areas or national parks, similar to what is done in neighbouring Indonesia, with potential benefits also for tourism and the country’s development”, adds the researcher.

The results of the expedition demonstrate the relevance of East Timor for marine biodiversity and reinforce the importance of prioritizing its conservation. It also reveals the urgency of carrying out more generalized studies on biodiversity in the country, since knowledge of the region’s natural heritage is essential to devise effective conservation strategies.

For Ivan Loria Shelley and Kate Barker, owners of Dreamers Dive Academy Timor Lda, the local operator that accompanied the expedition, “It was a huge privilege to participate in this expedition. Scientific research and conservation are extremely interesting, not only for us but also for local organizations and educational institutions, such as the National University of Timor. Unfortunately, the country presents some logistical challenges, along with a bureaucracy that does not facilitate processes, challenges that arise because it is a young nation, but which are overcome precisely with this type of collaboration between local operators, educational institutions and authorities.” For Ivan Loria, in addition to being a unique opportunity to explore and enrich knowledge about local biodiversity, projects like this put East Timor on the map, attracting a type of tourism that offers a much-needed economic alternative in the country.

“I am very proud to have participated in this expedition. I am happy to know that the world can witness the wonderful life we have here and that we can teach the Timorese the importance of protecting our reefs”, continues Luis Melky Berehuno, the first Timorese diving instructor.

“I hope that this type of expedition continues and that in the future better partnerships can be built between international and local universities, with the collaboration of our authorities to expand knowledge of our marine ecosystems and educate Timorese youth”, adds Jake Lasi, Dive – Local Diving master.

For Joaquim Reis and Marta Pola, there is no doubt: “if with just 15 days on the ground we returned with these results, imagine what we would do with more. We look forward to support that allows us to return and expand the scope, both geographically and in terms of organisms and habitats.”

What are nudibranchs?

Exclusively marine shellless molluscs commonly known as “sea slugs”. A very diverse group, with approximately 4000 described species, and many more to be described. Harmless to humans, many contain chemical compounds, which they use to defend themselves from predators. These same chemicals make them a frequent target of the pharmaceutical industry, as they are a potential source for the development of new drugs. They often feature eye-catching bright colour patterns, which is why they are highly appreciated by underwater photographers.

About the specimens found

Of the identified specimens, species from the Phyllidiidae family (Phyllidiidae elegans, Phyllidia ocellata, Phyllidia picta, Phyllidiella nigra, Phyllidiella pustulosa, Phyllidiopsis annae, Reticulidia fungia), the Myrrhinidae family (such as Phyllodesmium briareum and Phyllodesmium longicirrum) and the family Nembrothinae (Nembrotha kubaryana, N. chamberlaini, N. lineolata, N. yonowae, Tambja affinis, etc.)

About the expedition

The expedition lasted 15 days and focused on the north coast of East Timor between Liquiçá, Dili and Manatutu, with a short incursion on the island of Atauro. It included the participation of researchers from the MARE-Center for Marine and Environmental Sciences of the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon and the Autonomous University of Madrid and also had the collaboration of the University of East Timor, the Portuguese Institute of Malacology, the University of Cádiz and Dreamers Dive Academy, a diving and research centre in Timor-Leste.

About MARE

MARE – Center for Marine and Environmental Sciences – is a centre for scientific research, technological development and innovation with skills for the study of all aquatic ecosystems, on the continental slope and at sea. Promotes the sustainable use of resources and ocean literacy by disseminating scientific knowledge and supporting sustainable development policies. Created in 2015, it integrates 7 Regional Research Units associated with the following institutions: University of Coimbra (MARE-UCoimbra), Polytechnic of Leiria (MARE-Politecnico de Leiria), University of Lisbon (MARE-ULisboa), Universidade Nova de Lisboa (MARE -NOVA), ISPA – University Institute (MARE-ISPA), University of Évora (MARE-UÉvora) and ARDITI (MARE-Madeira).

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