The Australian Museum will help protect Australian waters from pest species with a new app providing a comprehensive, well-illustrated guide to marine hitchhikers.

The unique app will enable users to identify, collect and preserve marine worms – a task usually reserved for a handful of scientific experts who can tell native worms from invasive species.

Australian Museum Scientist, Dr Pat Hutchings, said any ship entering an Australian port could be carrying unwanted hitchhikers – either as adults attached to her hull or as tiny larvae swimming in the ballast water.

“Bringing a new animal to a continent where the natives evolved in isolation for millions of years can be a recipe for disaster,” she said.
“While Customs protect us from the obvious biological invaders through our airports, more often the ‘exotic’ is something small and unobtrusive such as marine organisms.”

Dr Hutchings said some marine worms can cause major problems for the aquaculture industry by blocking intake pipes, causing mud blisters on oysters or completely changing the communities on the seafloor.

“The trouble is, once the cat is out of the bag there is usually no going back because it is virtually impossible to eradicate pests once they have become established,” she said.
“Our only hope of preventing trouble is to recognise alien species when they first arrive but this has always been problematic given the difficulty in telling natives and pests apart.”

The new app will enable non-experts to check if the worm in front of them is a pest or a harmless native species by comparing it to images of worms held in the Australian Museum collection.

The photos will be accompanied by simple text on how to collect and preserve the worms, as well as instructions for how to contact Australian Museum scientists if expert advice is required.

The app has been generously supported with $70,000 in funding from the Australian Museum Foundation and will be available to purchase from August 2013.

The app is the third to be developed by the museum with the two previous apps – DangerOz and Frogs Field Guide – now available in the Apple Store.

NSW residents who find an invasive marine species should contact the Aquatic Pest Hotline (24 hr service) on 02 4916 3877.