After a three week expedition to Papua New Guinea, an island north of Australia, Jim Thomas, professor and researcher at the NSU Oceanographic Center’s National Coral Reef Institute, discovered new species of feather stars, sea slugs and amphipods — shrimp-like crustaceans.
In December, Thomas led a team — which included researchers from San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the California Academy of Sciences, the National Botanical Gardens of Ireland and the Paris Museum of Natural History —to the Madang Lagoon, on Papua New Guinea’s north coast.
Thomas had conducted previous research in the South Pacific, including Papua New Guinea, and felt compelled to return for follow-up research. His research team hoped to shine light on the human projects harming the lagoon and its species — such as mining operations and tuna canneries.
In an interview with PR Newswire, Thomas said, “Hopefully, our discoveries will strongly encourage governing bodies to recognize the environmental importance of the lagoon and work to stop the pollution.”
Richard Dodge, dean and executive director of the National Coral Reef Institute, said, “It is a tribute to skill and determination that Dr. Thomas has been able to conduct his research under adverse conditions and to also make outstanding discoveries that can [contribute to] our understanding of coral reefs and even all life in the oceans.”
Thomas said that, at one point, scientists did not believe there were reefs on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, as there were no shallow bays and lagoons typical of most coral reef environments. But, researchers eventually discovered a lot of biodiversity.
In a radio interview with Australia’s Pacific Beat program, Thomas said that the biodiversity of Madang Lagoon is very diverse, though the details of its makeup are mostly unknown. The reefs may have developed 30 to 50 million years ago.
One of Thomas’ graduate students, Stephanie Andringa, who is pursuing a master’s degree in marine biology and coastal zone management, accompanied him on the trip to collect amphipods, fix specimens for dissection or microscope viewing, and help identify multiple species of amphipods.
Andringa said, “Accompanying Dr. Thomas to Papua New Guinea allowed me to dive in one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, and for that I will always be thankful. Through this experience, I was able to meet and learn from distinguished marine biologists and develop friendships with many wonderful Papuans.”
After her travel experiences, Andringa said she learned that community outreach and education is an integral part of carrying out research.
“We were very excited. It is a special moment to watch your educator make further advancements in their already successful career. I was and am grateful to have been a part of that discovery,” said Andringa. “I am very proud of him. It takes an exuberant amount of time and effort to carry out research in the field, and Dr. Thomas still enjoys it and tries to be involved with as many research projects as possible. I see many more discoveries in his future and can only hope that my career will be as successful as his.”
After discovering a new species, Thomas said that the research must be formally described and published in a recognized, peer-reviewed scientific publication. The research involves dissection under a microscope, a formal description of the unique species and studies to determine relationships to known species. Then, the specimens collected, called holotypes, must be deposited in collections to natural history museums, so that other scientists can examine them.
Thomas said, “It is quite an honor. Whoever describes a species get to select the name. In a place like Papua New Guinea, I will select a name that represents part of the culture and people of the area where the species was collected.”
Charles Messing, professor of biology at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, also discovered new species when he accompanied Thomas on a trip to Papua New Guinea back in 1992.
Messing said, “Dr. Thomas has been carrying out research on the north coast of Papua New Guinea for over 20 years. His research goes beyond the description of new species, because he investigates the evolution of the entire fauna of his research focus, the amphipod crustaceans, in the context of the geological history of the region. Dr. Thomas’ research on these animals has significantly helped to reconstruct the complex geological history of Papua New Guinea.”
Thomas said that he’s been interested in marine biology since he was young. He grew up in Miami and learned to swim before he could even walk. He teaches graduate level courses in ecology of the Belize Barrier Reef and undergraduate courses in oceanography and ecology.
Thomas said, “My advice to students who want to be marine biologists is to get out into the field, investigate local marine systems, and most importantly, take field classes where you are actually leaning in a marine environment with a teacher that has specialized expertise in a particular discipline of marine science.”