Tuncurry students’ work cited in international journal

An unusual discovery by Great Lakes College students has led to international recognition by the science community. Sven Wright reports.

Image: Students from Great Lakes College show off their rare finds from Wallis Lake.

The work of Year 9 Marine and Aquaculture Technology students at Great Lakes College, Tuncurry Campus, in logging the movement of a sea star (starfish) southwards is being recorded in the academic journal AM’s Technical Reports.

Principal Sally Chad said the academic acknowledgement of the students’ work is testimony to their enthusiasm and thoroughness, and to the guidance of their science teacher, Simon Patterson.

“Intelligent curiosity is the seed of all new learning, and that’s exactly what the students showed while snorkelling in Wallis Lake in Term 4, 2020,” said Ms Chad.

“They saw some beautiful but unfamiliar sea stars and were determined to identify them.

“Their own research didn’t lead to any conclusions, so Mr Patterson contacted the Australian Museum, who put him onto their Marine Invertebrate Collection Manager, Dr Stephen Keable.

“Dr Keable asked for help in collecting and preserving specimens, which the students did, preserving six in our laboratory for collection by the museum.

“Dr Keable was able to identify them as Pentaceraster regulus, and while the museum had two examples collected from the Lake in 2008, it was thought they weren’t then native but brought in by vessels entering the marina.

Image: The students discovered that the 'Pentaceraster regulus' is making its way south.

Their presence in the Lake now suggests a possible range shift for the species, and it’s a great thrill for the students to have their part in this important work recognised in the journal.”

Dr Keable was able to visit Forster Tuncurry to collect the specimens from the school and collect more himself from Wallis Lake. He spoke to the students about his role at the museum, and about the science of taxonomy – classifying living things – during his visit.

“The specimens found by the students and additional observations led us to conclude that the sea star, Pentaceraster regulus, normally occurring in tropical waters further north, has now established itself in Wallis Lake,” Dr Keable said.

“As there is considerable difference between the smallest and largest specimens present, it does suggest a population that completes most, or all, of the life cycle in the estuary.”

Dr Keable co-authored the paper appearing in the journal with Dr Christopher Mah from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, an international authority on the biology and evolution of sea stars. Ms Chad hopes the students’ experience will be a motivator for their future work.

“This is an outstanding example of citizen science, where local people work to connect with academics and scientists to further everyone’s understanding of the natural world,” she said.

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