Prof Juliet Brodie in front of a small plane

Prof Juliet Brodie prepares to take to the air in the Falkland Islands

To boldly go where no phycologist has gone before

Seaweed experts visit the Falklands' remote coastlines to uncover new species.

Seaweeds fringe almost the entire length of the Falkland Islands' wild and rocky coastline.

The Falklands comprise more than 770 islands, each with an underwater forest that is vital for the functioning of the marine environment.

Just like seaweeds all over the world, these forests are easily overlooked but play a crucial role in protecting and supporting other animals and plants. As well as buffering the waves that crash against the islands, they are a spawning habitat for baby squid.

Part of an island in the Falklands photographed from the air

Part of an island in the Falklands photographed from the air

 

Despite their importance, seaweeds are poorly studied in the Falklands. But Museum phycologist (seaweed expert) Prof Juliet Brodie is leading a mission to change this.

By combining data from the Museum's historical and contemporary herbarium collections with field surveys and molecular techniques, she is leading a project to fill gaps in scientists' knowledge.

Juliet says, 'In the face of emerging threats from oil exploration, fishing activities, invasive species and climate change, there is a critical need to improve our knowledge of seaweed communities (especially the diversity and distribution of different species) to develop tools for conserving the Falklands marine environment.'

A group of Gentoo penguins on Saunders Island

Gentoo penguins on Saunders Island,  the fourth largest of the Falkland Islands, where Juliet took seaweed samples

 

In the field

Juliet travelled to the Falklands in early 2018 to undertake field work, along with postdoctoral researcher Dr Rob Mrowicki.

Their trip was just the beginning of the 18-month project to identify, survey and document the seaweed species in the Falklands.

Recent seaweed studies suggest that seaweed biodiversity in the Falklands is much greater than previously thought. About 250 species are currently listed in the area, but Juliet thinks to the number may be closer to 350. Some groups, notably red seaweeds, are virtually unstudied.

Thanks to local driver Peter Nightingale, Juliet and Rob were able to get to some remote shores, including several where no phycologist has collected before.  

A parked land rover near a coastline

The Land Rover Juliet and Rob used to search for their seaweed samples

 

Juliet says, 'West Falkland especially is a truly remarkable place of magnificent scenery, with a rich variety of shores, from sheltered coves to those exposed to the full might of the open ocean.

'Since the original seaweed collections were made in the Falklands in the 1840s, the men and women who explored these coasts have all been pioneers, often visiting shores for the first time.'

Over the course of a month, Juliet and Rob visited 30 sites and collected more than 1,000 specimens. 

Green seaweed on a wet rock

Seaweeds live along the full length of the Falkland Islands coastline

 

Next steps

Over the next year, the project will continue to document seaweed specimens from the Falklands and analyse their DNA to discover the true extent of seaweed diversity.

A seaweed herbarium will also be developed there as both a reference for identification of species and a source of DNA for future studies. People living in the Falklands will be trained to identify species so they can monitor the seaweed and draw from the valuable information from this project and in online databases.

Related information

  • This project, 'Building foundations to monitor and conserve Falklands marine forest habitats', is being conducted in partnership with the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI).
  • It is funded by the UK government's Darwin Initiative (project DPLUS068).

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