Penguin ‘poop study’ to help unlock colony’s diet

Researchers from The University of Western Australia and Murdoch University are analysing DNA from the excrement of little penguins in Cockburn Sound to find out what, other than fish, they are eating and whether it is affecting their breeding.

Penguin researcher Dr Belinda Cannell, from UWA, said analysing the animals’ diet in greater detail would provide an insight into their breeding and how it related to the availability of their primary diet, which is fish.

Little penguins in Cockburn Sound (their northern most range in Western Australia) primarily eat anchovies, pilchards, scaly mackerel and sandy sprat.

Penguins are known to also feed on crustaceans, cephalopods and even jellyfish.

“If it’s a poor year and there are not a lot of fish around, the little penguins may be feeding more on other things such as jellyfish,” Dr Cannell said.

This could then have an impact on their ability to produce and raise young.

“This other food may not get them into the condition where they can breed and feed their young,” Dr Cannell said.

“It may be that the chicks don’t fatten up as quickly.”

She said diet made up one element of the project, which is part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program.

Another methodology being used to determine diet composition is the analysis of stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur from the down of little penguin chicks and feathers from adults.

“Stable isotopes of carbon reflect primary production sources and is more enriched in inshore, seagrass dominated areas, compared to offshore food webs,” Dr Cannell said.

“The stable isotope of nitrogen increases up the food chain and can also increase between size classes of the same prey species.”

“Stable isotopes of sulphur can be useful to distinguish between offshore and inshore components in food webs and can also indicate if producers are using sulphur from seawater, which is more enriched, or from sediments which are less enriched.

“This gives us a better idea of the whole diet of these birds.”

Dr Cannell said stable isotopes assist with establishing diet composition.

“I presume little penguins are eating jellyfish, but we haven’t had stable isotopes for jellyfish until now.”

The Western Australian Museum provided samples to assist with the research.

Cockburn Sound research reports now online

Cockburn Sound research teams have started delivering project reports for their work on the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program.

These are now published on WAMSI’s Cockburn Sound webpage under ‘Research Themes and Reports‘.

More than 100 scientists and researchers are working across 33 projects, helping to build a picture of the Sound’s environment and provide key input into the port design.

In one of the latest reports to be released, scientists have carried out a detailed literature review identifying potential invasive marine species which may have become established in Cockburn Sound, with procedures to mitigate the risk of introducing these to future Westport facilities.

Another project explores the potential effects of suspended sediment on fishes from dredging, while a social science study has identified and mapped 31 non-fishing recreational activities and 11 associated values for the Sound.

Reports will continue to be published on our website over the next few months.


Eco-design and pre-seeding among options to encourage healthy port marine life

Pre-seeding new port structures to encourage the colonisation of native species is one of the mitigation measures against invasive marine plants and animals, outlined in a new report prepared for the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program.

The literature review by Curtin University School of Molecular and Life Sciences Adjunct Professor Fred Wells lists many of the invasive marine species that have been recorded in waters around Perth and mitigation measures that could be used during any port construction.

Pre-seeding works by attaching local, fast-growing species to a new structure. The common mussel is one option identified in the report.

Professor Wells said invasive marine species were a worldwide problem and shipping was the most common way they spread to coastal areas. Ninety-eight percent of trade in and out of Australia is on vessels.

“Invasive marine species are concentrated on artificial surfaces and eco-engineering is a new field that attempts to encourage biodiversity and prevent potential marine pests taking hold,” Professor Wells said.

“The risk of introducing new species is greatest during construction but experience during the construction boom in the Pilbara demonstrated the issue is manageable.”

Professor Wells said eco-design was a new and evolving field that could help improve the biodiversity of the marine community that develops underwater, while minimising the risk of invasive species.

“Current design procedures tend to create uniform habitats, such as seawalls with smooth vertical faces. The lack of habitat diversity reduces the biodiversity of the marine community that develops on the structure. “

“Increasing the habitat diversity of new immersed structures and pre-seeding them with native species appear to be the most promising ways for mitigating against species that can cause ecological harm and prove expensive.”

Professor Wells said the biggest threats from invasive species to marine ecosystems were introducing disease, displacing native species, changing the ecology of native communities, clogging pipes and damaging other critical infrastructure.

The report, which was done to understand potential risks, is a literature review of invasive marine species from Cottesloe to Cockburn Sound, including waters around Fremantle and the Swan River.

A comprehensive survey more than a decade ago recorded 60 introduced marine species living in WA waters. Three were on the national marine pest list. Four additional marine pests were subsequently recorded in WA.

“Fortunately, most introduced marine species are apparently innocuous, causing no known adverse effects and we know only a small portion become pests,” Professor Wells said.



Sediment samples at the core of a model project

Dozens of core samples, taken from sediment around Cockburn Sound, will play a crucial role in the creation of a model of the area’s ecosystem to help inform environmental assessment of the proposed port.

The work, being done as part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program, involved divers collecting three sediment cores from 12 sites and scientists analysing them at a specially created laboratory nearby.

The project is being run by Professor Bradley Eyre from Southern Cross University and Professor Matthew Hipsey, from The University of Western Australia.

Professor Eyre said the tubes of sediment and water were set up in a laboratory, in the garage of a beachside home, where conditions simulated in situ temperature and changing light conditions between night and day, at the sediment surface.

“Some analysis is best done when we have fresh samples, so we wanted to avoid any delays,” Professor Eyre said.

“Other samples will be sent back to the Southern Cross University campus near Byron Bay, which has the only instrumentation in Australia for some of the analyses.”

The 12 locations in the Sound, represent different types of shallow and deep sediments including muds, seagrass meadows, and sandy areas.

“In the laboratory, we were measuring the flux of oxygen and nutrients in and out of sediment including nutrients such as ammonia and phosphate,” Professor Eyre said

“Some of the tubes contained sediment with seagrass growing in it.

“We are also measuring a critical process in the sediments called denitrification.

“Denitrification is a natural process by which ecosystems such as Cockburn Sound can remove nitrogen.”

“It is a really important cleansing process but if the carbon load gets too high the process can be reduced.”

The researchers said data from the sediment testing would underpin new water quality modelling of the Cockburn Sound ecosystem.

“The data complements other key experimental data being collected as part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program on the chemical and biological conditions, allowing the development of Cockburn Sound Integrated Ecosystem Model platform to help manage the system,” Professor Hipsey said

“What we are measuring will reflect what is happening currently in the Sound and when used alongside the modelling we will be able to predict what will happen under future scenarios.”

Hippo sedation adapted for Perth sea lion tagging

Even for a veterinarian who regularly anaesthetises antelopes, giraffes and hippopotamuses, the Australian sea lions off Perth were a new challenge for Werribee Open Range Zoo’s Dr Brett Gardner.

The Victorian based wildlife vet, supporting Dr Simone Vitali – a former specialist veterinarian with  the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions in Perth – helped fit satellite tracking devices to the endangered mammals after using a novel anaesthetic regime designed to reduce the risk of drowning and aid a quicker recovery.

Dr Gardner said the team working on the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program satellite tagging operation included boat and beach crews as well as swimmers.

“For sea lions, the water is their safe space when they are stressed but when they have just been anaesthetised it is dangerous for them to be there,” Dr Gardner said.

Traditional methods induce a heavy sedation or even full anaesthesia, which can be risky for the animals.  The sea lions’ anatomy including their breath-holding ability, more compressible ribcage and vulnerable trachea add to challenges around anaesthesia.

“We used a combination of drugs that induce a light sedation, and we had members of the team on the beach and on boats ready to administer medication that reverses their effects in the case of an emergency such as a potential drowning.”

“This lighter sedation is predominantly used to free marine mammals that become caught in fishing line and discarded rope where a heavy sedation would be too dangerous.”

Dr Gardner said the way the sea lions are selected for darting is important.

“We try to target animals that are less likely to react by fleeing into the water, so sleeping sea lions are preferable to ones that are awake.”

The research team works on a sedated sea lion (Photo: Kelly Waples DBCA)

“When we dart animals that are sleeping rather than ones that are alert, they tend to respond like it’s one of their mates that’s bitten them and then they settle down and the anaesthetic takes effect.”

The islands in the Perth metropolitan region are used exclusively by male sea lions but this too posed unique challenges.

“The problem with the Australian sea lion bulls is that they were all on the water’s edge, literally, less than 25 metres away and some are less than five metres from the water.”

“Also, because of their sheer size and their fat deposits you’ve got far fewer suitable areas for a dart to be placed.”

A paper on the anaesthetic regime’s use in Australian sea lions is being written and Drs Gardner and Vitali, said there were no adverse effects observed and the satellite tags were successfully attached to the animals.






Celebrating marine science opportunities on International Women’s Day

As a graduate scientist with a passion for marine biology and fisheries, Jenny Shaw was excited to be selected for an expedition to the Abrolhos Islands. That was, until she was bumped from the vessel’s manifest when someone more senior discovered ‘J. Shaw’ was a woman. The knockback didn’t deter her, and in the decades since she’s become a sought-after team member on research and commercial fishing vessels from Alaska to the Abrolhos.

Now Research Director at the Western Australian Marine Science Institution Dr Shaw is enjoying a career that is driven by taking up opportunities.

“My advice to anyone in marine science would be to embrace opportunities and take risks,” Dr Shaw said.

“I have travelled and worked in many different places and, as the expression goes, enjoyed taking the road less travelled.”

Born in Geraldton and raised in Carnarvon and Albany, her life has revolved around the ocean. Every morning, year-round, starts with a swim in the sea.

A founding member of Women in Seafood Australasia, Dr Shaw was inducted into the National Seafood Hall of Fame in 2019.  “That was a very proud moment.” She has also been recipient of numerous scholarships, multiple awards and a member on a variety of local and national boards.

Dr Jenny Shaw in front of bookshelf with reports and an award on one shelf

WAMSI Research Director Dr Jenny Shaw.

On International Women’s Day last year, she spoke at a United Nations forum in New York about climate change impacts.

But Dr Shaw was investigating climate change back in the early 1990s as a researcher on Rarotonga, which is the largest and most populace of the picturesque Cook Islands.

“Lunch on my first day in the office was spent eating fish by hand on woven leaf plates watching whales breach beyond the reef.”

“I spent three years on Rarotonga working for the Cook Islands Conservation Service including on a climate change project in which we did baseline coral and fish surveys as part of an international data base for GOOS (Global Ocean Observing System).

“There was an awareness of global warming and climate change then and the imminent risks to island communities.

“In some ways the cause went backwards in the years and decades afterwards, likely because of powerful interest groups which tried to derail the message, muddy the waters, and polarise opinion” she said.

Dr Shaw gave her first public talk on climate change 30 years ago and continues to speak up, including last year at the UN and in Bergen, Norway at the ‘Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Oceans Symposium’.

She feels now there is finally a groundswell of support for change with record temperatures, extreme fires and coral bleaching bringing home the harsh reality of climate change.

At WAMSI, her interest in climate change science has continued.

The marine scientist led and co-authored the 2023 Science Plan for Shark Bay (Gathaagudu) which involved extensive consultation with the local community, including Indigenous Traditional Owners along with managers and scientists. The key priority for stakeholders in the area, which is still recovering from a devastating marine heatwave more than a decade ago, was climate change.

There is more work to do.

“I would say to young marine scientists, don’t be put off by small setbacks, take every opportunity and most of all – have fun.”

Enhancing environmental decision making with trusted data

A new strategic partnership will provide leadership in achieving better public good outcomes for Australia’s environment.

Originally published by Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC)  

A trusted environment data and information supply chain to improve research and decision making on Australia’s environment is the focus of a new strategic partnership between the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW), The Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute (WABSI), the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI), and the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC).

The partners have signed a statement of intent to provide leadership in achieving better public good outcomes for Australia’s environment. Their focus will be on providing guidance to support a national environmental data and information standard. This will enable environmental data to be connected and harmonised, facilitating improved assessments of current and future states, conditions, and trends of matters protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act.

Hamish Holewa, Director of Planet Research Data Commons at ARDC, stated, “This is an exciting partnership. In collaboration with research, government and industry we are working to develop trusted data and information supply chains that will enable research translation and make it easier to discover, integrate and develop information products for use in research and decision making. The ARDC Planet Research Data Commons aims to connect data and analysis across sectors and disciplines. This will ensure decisions about our environment are made with the best and most complete data available.”

At the Australian Environment Ministers Meeting, held in Adelaide in November, it was agreed that one of the key elements for achieving national targets was ensuring that environmental data and information was widely accessible and supported planning.

WABSI and WAMSI have worked in partnership with the WA Government, the WA EPA and the science community to enhance the access, aggregation, interpretation and management of biodiversity information collected in Western Australia.

“This partnership is the next phase in our journey,” said Professor Owen Nevin, Chief Executive Officer, WABSI. “It will help Australia develop national targets, in line with the Global Biodiversity Framework, to better protect nature. Shared data and analytics will empower regional environmental planning to de-risk projects for business whilst addressing cumulative impacts and delivering positive environmental outcomes in regions with priority development.”

As part of this initiative, a Shared Environmental Analytics Facility is proposed for the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The project will be carried out in collaboration with industry, research institutions, and government.

“In addition to improving efficiencies in research and evidence-based decision-making, the trusted supply chain will lift public trust in Environmental Impact Assessment decisions through transparency and visibility of data and methods underpinning decisions,” added Dr Luke Twomey, Chief Executive Officer, WAMSI.

The 2020 Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act underscored the need for an effective ‘supply chain’ of environmental information.

Learn more about the Trusted Environmental Data and Information Supply Chains program within the Planet Research Data Commons.

The ARDC is funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support national digital research infrastructure for Australian researchers.

Ocean art awards: Art created from marine debris inspires conservation

This art award and exhibition has been postponed until 21-25 October  2024

Creative Western Australians are being invited to transform marine debris and beach finds into art for an exhibition at The University of Western Australia’s Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre (IOMRC).

The Western Australian Marine Science Institution is a sponsor of ‘From Waste to Wonder – Indian Ocean Marine Art Exhibition and Awards’ and donating two cash prizes for the best artworks by secondary school students.

WAMSI CEO Dr Luke Twomey said the world’s oceans absorbed about 90 per cent of the heat generated by rising greenhouse gas emissions and were under increasing stress from the effects of climate change and other pressures.

“We would love to see school students learn more about the importance of the ocean and ultimately help discover new opportunities as well as solutions to problems such as marine heatwaves and the loss of biodiversity,” Dr Twomey said.

“Art can be a great way of engaging with the community and we are excited to support creative students who have an interest in our oceans, particularly the one on our doorstep.”

Exhibition organiser Linda Raynor-Thomas, from IOMRC, said art not only made people feel good it could also inspire them to take more care of the environment.

“Through art we can raise awareness of greater issues concerning the conservation of our oceans,” Ms Raynor-Thomas said.

“One of the early entries we received was made almost entirely of fishing line found on beaches and discarded rope from fishing boats.”

The emphasis of this year’s award will be on recycling Indian Ocean marine and coastal debris with artists invited to creatively transform waste into wonderful works of art.

The art award evolved from a previous event held on the campus within the School of Biological Sciences.

Artist Angela Rossen, a previous award winner, will be one of the judges of ‘From Waste to Wonder’.

“In our lifetime we have a fast-closing window of opportunity to reverse the damage we have done to the very natural systems that support us,” Ms Rossen said.

“Our oceans, which have quietly absorbed pollution since the industrial revolution, are fast reaching saturation point. Heating and acidification are negatively impacting not only the plant and animal communities of the ocean but the very climate systems that support and regulate life on our planet.

“Effective action to conserve, remediate and protect the ocean is imperative now.

“The sciences and arts are well placed to work together to activate for change of the regulatory frameworks that govern extractive and polluting industries to ensure a liveable future,” she said.

Prizes will be awarded for the best works by an adult artist and secondary students. There will also be a prize in the people’s choice category.

For more information head to the IOMRC website.


Plastic’s everywhere – so how do we stop it contaminating samples? 

Microplastics researchers need to think about everything from the jackets they wear in the field and their sampling containers to laboratory washing up methods to avoid contamination, according to a visiting biology professor who runs a plastics testing laboratory in the United States.

Dr Brian Walker, from Fairfield University in Fairfield Connecticut, told a recent workshop at The University of Western Australia’s Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre there had been a big growth in microplastics studies since 2010 as concerns mounted about the vast volume of plastics breaking up and being eaten by land and marine life.

“There is evidence these plastics are now affecting human health,” Dr Walker said.

“They can also be a vessel for bringing organisms such as viruses and neurotoxins into the body.”

The workshop was organised by Dr Belinda Cannell, from UWA’s Oceans Institute. UWA is one of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s partner organisations.

Dr Walker, who has worked for more than 20 years with penguins in Argentina, told the group he had developed some best practices for fieldwork and laboratory analysis to help ensure the highest standards for microplastics research. He said avoiding sample contamination involved scrutiny of every part of the process from the field to laboratory.

“When I have worked with collected penguin excrement, I try to get it as fresh as possible so it’s less likely to pick up micro or nano plastics in the environment although this isn’t always possible,” he said.

Dr Cannell, who is investigating microplastics in little penguins in Western Australia, said the seabirds’ nests can create challenges.

“Little penguins do not nest on the surface, so we don’t usually get to see a penguin defecating, so we scrape the samples from the ground,” Dr Cannell said.

Both researchers take care to avoid contamination by wearing cotton, rather than latex, gloves and retrieving samples with metal, not plastic, tools.

Dr Walker advises researchers to wear clothes made of natural fibres as much as possible because fabrics such as Polarfleece, which is widely used in cold climate garments, often shed synthetic fibres.

“When it’s raining, cotton is not an option so after one field trip where I wore a raincoat, I removed some of its fibres for testing to check they hadn’t got into the samples from the field,” he said.

“Back in my laboratory we hand wash glass sample jars with double filtered water and don’t use the dishwasher because of the plastic hoses.”

“The jars are always covered with foil rather than plastic and we even check to make sure there is no film on the foil.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of stopping contamination.”

Dr Walker said a new infrared microscope, he’d bought with the help of a grant, would speed up and improve the laboratory’s process for identifying microplastics on filters.

Volunteers spring into action to help seagrass recovery in Cockburn Sound

A seagrass restoration program, that is helping to regenerate Cockburn Sound’s underwater meadows, has had a record number of volunteers helping to spread hundreds of thousands of seeds from the plants.

About 80 per cent of Cockburn Sound’s meadows were wiped out in the 1950s and 60s because of poor water quality. Seeds for Snapper harnesses community help, backed by scientific knowledge, to collect seagrass seeds and disperse them where they are most needed.

Research officer Rachel Austin, from The University of Western Australia’s School of Biological Sciences, who helps run Seeds for Snapper with fishing conservation charity OzFish, said volunteers helped disperse 670,000 seeds over 10 sites during November. They donated 1500 hours.

“It’s very simple, very scalable and results in much higher seeding density than what happens naturally,” Ms Austin said.

“We estimate that more than 90 percent of seagrass fruit ends up where it cannot grow, including on the beach and in deep water.

“We are able to collect the seeds and throw them into specially chosen areas where they are more likely to take hold.”

Rachel Austin with a beaker of seagrass seeds.

Rachel Austin from UWA with seagrass seeds at a volunteers’ day in Cockburn Sound.

“By doing what we are doing we can get substantially more seedlings in an area compared to what can happen naturally.”

She said the program had not only had a practical benefit in helping regenerate parts of the seabed but had also increased awareness of the importance of seagrass for storing carbon, stabilising the seabed and providing breeding areas and habitat for marine animals.



“If you want squid, fish and octopus you’ve got to have somewhere for them to live and that is your seagrass meadows,” Ms Austin said.

“About 200 hectares has regrown but we’re still missing 2,000 hectares.”

Seagrass restoration is among the research projects currently underway as part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program.

OzFish Western Australia Program Manager, Steve Pursell, said 2023 was the second biggest year for Seeds for Snapper in terms of the number of seeds released into Cockburn Sound. Last year was the highest since it started six years ago.

“The program has really gained momentum,” Mr Pursell said.

“We had people from a range of backgrounds and all ages, helping out this year.

“We even had a volunteer fly in from New York, just to work on the project,” he said.

“Some volunteers who come along don’t initially realise the difference between seagrass and seaweed but they soon learn that, and many go on to become great advocates for the importance of seagrass and our habitat restoration work.”.

He said volunteer divers collected seagrass fruit in nets and other groups on shore worked at tanks to sort husks from the seeds. Volunteers and recreational boaters then took the seeds into Cockburn Sound to throw them back in the water at selected sites.

Ms Austin said she was heartened by the response to Seeds for Snapper from fishers they met at boat ramps.

“Public awareness around the importance of seagrass has really grown and the fishers we speak to are really enthusiastic. It gives you hope for the future.”

She said the program involving monitoring sites where seeds were dispersed.

“Our main species Posidonia australis (ribbon-weed) is quite a slow growing species so you’re talking a good five to 10 years before you have a dense meadow.

“But we have found incredible growth in some areas.

“Some sites are not as good, and we learn every year.

“At all our sites it does look like we are getting higher seedling densities than if it was left to nature.”

People who are interested in volunteering for the 2024 Seeds for Snapper program can find more information here or email