Gary Rice, Sarah Goater, and Mark Musarra
with the digital camera.
Image: Sarah Goater
A remote-controlled camera small enough to fit down a narrow borehole water pipe has captured the first ever digital footage of elusive stygofauna (creatures living in groundwater sources) in their natural habitat near Exmouth.
The environmental breakthrough made recently by WA researcher Sarah Goater has created a window of opportunity to understand the biology of these ancient fish, shrimps and small animals, whose ancestors swam in the world’s oceans more than 200 million years ago before descending below ground.
Her work is expected to provide sufficient information for a new approach to the scientific study and management of the whole stygofauna ecosystem providing an opportunity to improve conservation initiatives currently in place.
She says there is a global absence of knowledge on the natural processes driving subterranean fauna and ecosystem changes, with very little known about their breeding biology, food sources or community structures.
The Water Corporation of WA employed Sarah through a R&D grant which she incorporated into her Invertebrate Biology and Environmental Law PhD at UWA, using the Exmouth Water Supply Borefield as a case-study approach.
The Exmouth town-site is supplied from groundwater recharged into the system by rainfall. A freshwater lens from which water is abstracted sits on top of a marine environment with a thick mixing zone joining the two systems.
“Stygofauna and aquafauna had been found in the water some years earlier and a monitoring program was established as part of the compliance conditions to ensure no detrimental changes occurred within the aquifer as a result of Water Corporation-approved extensions,” says Sarah.
One of the issues facing the research is monitoring changes in species where it is not known if any changes occur naturally or due to abstract issues.
Sarah collaborated on the design of the unique camera with digital technology specialists Mark Muscarra and Gary Rice for over 18 months.
“The idea of developing the digital camera was to see if we could find where in the water column the animals were actually living and if they were tolerant to varying salinity concentrations,” she says.
“The camera design was challenging because stygofauna on average are very small, often less than one millimeter in length. The unit needed to be small enough to fit down the narrow bore pipe, yet provide sufficient light and depth of field to return digital images clear enough for positive identification.”
Sarah says stygofauna were thought to live in the mixing or fresh water zones, but until now, the only information supporting this theory came from net samples taken from bores that likely intersect variable habitat and water quality conditions.
“We have a lot to learn about stygofauna from this new imaging technique, and biological scientists, environmental consultants, environmental regulators and anyone with an interest in the supply of clean drinking water or utilisation of groundwater resources for commercial purposes stands to gain significantly from future study results.”
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