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iSimangaliso Wetland Park embraces its heritage with new discoveries

21 September 2012

“We are celebrating South Africa’s National Heritage Day this Monday the 24th of September and the 40th year of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention with the announcement of the recent discovery and naming of a new species of sea anemone, Edwardsia isimangaliso. We are also waiting for confirmation of a further seven new species – including the oddly-named ‘hairy backs’”, says Andrew Zaloumis, iSimangaliso CEO. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first world heritage site, was inscribed for three outstanding universal values, one of which was biodiversity. One hundred and eighty nine member countries to the convention agree iSimangaliso is unique – one of a kind. Edwardsia isimangaliso has been seen in the South Lake area between Charters Creek and Catalina Bay. The genus Edwardsia is unusual amongst sea anemones in that it lives half buried in sand and displays a large number of long, tapering tentacles. The other seven species in the wings comprise two bivalves (clams), two crustaceans (a crab and a copepod) and three or four species of gastrotrichs (hairy backs) that researchers are quite confident could be new species. Some are currently under description while others await the results of detailed DNA analyses and morphological work. A conclusive study and final confirmation of the new gastrotrich species will be conducted in February 2013 when Prof Todaro, from Modena, Italy visits St Lucia. The project leader is Prof Renzo Perissinotto from the School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal

According to Prof Renzo Perissinotto, “Edwardsia isimangaliso is arguably of special conservation importance because it is the only one in the genus (and among only a few anemones) able to survive salinities in excess of sea water. Survival in Lake St Lucia would also require it to be able to survive periodic freshwater conditions which would add further to its unique nature. It may, therefore, represent the Lake’s relict of a lineage that diversified millions of years ago and may now be so adapted to the specific conditions of St Lucia to be micro-endemic to the system and unable to disperse successfully elsewhere.” “This exciting discovery reinforces yet again the importance of conserving of this unique area and protecting the integrity of the only habitat where the species is currently known to occur” says Andrew Zaloumis, iSimangaliso CEO. Its discovery and identification have some interesting scientific history. During research surveys undertaken by the University of KwaZulu-Natal in iSimangaliso’s Lake St Lucia Estuary since 2004 under Professor Renzo Perissinotto, several specimens of an unidentified vermiform or “worm-like” organism were retrieved from sediment samples collected on the shores of the southern part of South Lake. In the process of preserving these animals, the anemone withdrew its tentacles completely inside the body, thereby acquiring the superficial appearance of an unsegmented worm, of the sipunculid or priapulid type. In an attempt to identify the specimens preserved in the samples, photographs were sent out to a number of local estuarine ecologists. Most of them identified it as belonging to the “Sipuncula” group. Fortunately complete specimens as well as photographs were also sent to Prof Marymegan Daly of the Museum of Biological Diversity at the Ohio State University in the USA, one of only two taxonomists globally that have the necessary expertise to identify these anemones to species level. She concluded that the animal was in fact a true burrowing anemone and was surprised by the low number of tentacles (12-16) and the hypersaline habitat (up to 56 parts per thousand salt content) in which it was found. The normal habitat is in the sea where the salinity is about 35 parts per thousand. Her conclusion was that this was a species previously unknown to science

Recent years have also yielded the discovery of a new species of fish from the Blenny family, and new distribution records for the Tiger angelfish and Apolemitchthys kingi, seen on the sunken DAR barges by Mike Fraser and Dennis King who discovered them and after whom the latter has been named. The DARs are two artificial reefs just south of Cape Vidal in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The barges were removed after becoming stranded and beached in the wilderness area north of Vidal, and scuttled in 2009 after successful removal form the shore. Other sightings of locally rare species such as the seldom-spotted bird, the golden pipit, and the giant mushroom Macrocybe lobayensis, remind us of the wisdom of those who successfully campaigned to prevent dune mining and instead protect this magnificent area for future generations