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Honours coral research leads to Red Sea experience

Saudi Arabia may be a long way from the NSW mid North Coast but for UTS Marine Biology, and Environmental Science Honours graduate, Davina Poulos, there is a connection.

Davina’s honours research, into a little studied soft coral found in a temperate estuary near Port Stephens, earned her a week long, all expenses paid, trip to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) located on the Red Sea.

One of just 50 students, and the only Australian, selected as part of an international poster competition for undergraduate students, Davina’s research highlights the biodiversity value and unique habitat of these rare soft corals.

“Not a lot is known about the soft coral Dendronephtha australis and the aim of my research was to map their distribution and study their habitat with a view to better managing this species within the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park,” Davina said.

“My study showed that the soft coral needs very specific conditions to grow in and this restricts their distribution. They are found at depths ranging from 4.5 to 18 metres and where there are strong currents.”

Davina’s research showed that although soft coral habitat patches supported a diverse range of fish and invertebrate species, including seahorses and pipefish, none were within the Marine Park Sanctuary Zone and were therefore not adequately protected.

“Further research is needed to determine if these corals exist in other estuaries but this research shows they are home to key species like juvenile snapper, so need protection from threats such as fishing line entanglement and boat anchor damage,” Davina said.

Davina intends to continue her research career and has started a PhD at UTS, under the supervision of Professor David Booth to investigate fish community structures in Sydney Harbour. She is hopeful of a return visit to KAUST.

“I’m looking at doing comparative studies in the Red Sea and now that I’ve been able to make connections at KAUST this is a distinct possibility,” she said.

Davina’s honours thesis, for which she was awarded First Class Honours, was supervised by Professor David Booth and David Harasti from the NSW Marine Parks Authority.

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