Paradise Found - One Tree Island research station
If you were to design a perfect natural laboratory you could not do better than One Tree Island reports Linda Vergnani
Published Sydney Alumni Magazine, Autumn 2009
Professor Maria Byrne is standing on a coral shelf in the aquamarine waters of a vast lagoon. In her hands is a glistening, tubular creature the size of a baseball bat.
Around her, striped angelfish, turquoise and pink parrotfish and myriad other reef inhabitants flit. But rather than observing the paradisal parade below, Byrne is intent on the beche-de-mer, or sea cucumber, that she has just caught.
Surprisingly, its skin has the woody texture of tree bark, but the creature can change the stiffness of its body walls at will. Within seconds, the coppery-coloured animal spurts a defensive jet of water and droops over her arm. Now it feels more like a floppy jelly.
“If I keep interfering with this beche-de-mer it will disintegrate altogether. It thinks it is going to die and literally self-destructs,” explains Byrne, Professor of Marine and Developmental Biology at the University of Sydney.
Director of One Tree Island Research Station, Byrne is a world expert on echinoderms, the 500 million year-old family of invertebrates that includes seastars (starfish), sea urchins and sea cucumbers. One Tree Island is what she calls “sea cucumber heaven”, with 32 species recorded so far.
Some of Byrne’s research has been done in the lagoon’s “micro atolls”, swimming pool-size basins in which she can confine sea cucumbers. “If you designed a perfect natural research laboratory, you could not do better than One Tree Island,” she says.
Restricted to scientists and post-graduate students, One Tree Island has “not been impacted by stressors from development and tourism,” Byrne says. “You come here to do the kind of research you can’t do anywhere else.”
But this perfect laboratory is under threat from climate change. The research station complex, with its dormitories, laboratories and aquarium, could disappear under the waves in decades. “If the sea rises a metre here we could be gone,” says Byrne.