Presented by Dr Nicolas Lavesque

The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) & Bordeaux University, Arcachon Marine Station, France.

Recorded Wednesday 3 August 2022

Good morning, everyone. I'm very happy to be with you today to present my research activities dedicated to wonderful new worms and to talk about both spaghetti worms, which are shown on the slide, with spaghetti worms on the left and bloodworms on the right. I work in Arcachon Bay, which is a large lagoon in South West of France, shown in the slide at low tide. In this lagoon, there is about 50 square kilometres of Zostera seagrass beds Arcachon Bay. Arcachon welcomes many tourists every year, especially during summertime, and in the next slide you can see the two famous huts which were used to survey oyster farm during the Napoleonic time and you can also see the highest sand dune in Europe, as well as the pine forest which was burnt last month. Arcachon Bay is one of the major oyster farming areas in France. In the 1970’s the European oysters were all killed by disease and were replaced by oysters from Japan. Arcachon has become a major hotspot for non-native species with about 100 species recorded from the bay, and most of these have come from Asia. The bay is also a French biodiversity hotspot.

I work in the EPOC lab, (Continental and Oceanic Environment and Paleoenvironment) which is administered by the University of Bordeaux and CNRS. The lab has various sections including sedimentology, chemistry and marine biology. The EPOC lab has two sites, one in Bordeaux and one in Arcachon where I am based. The lab in Arcachon is one of the oldest in France and close to the beach.

I am a research scientist, which is probably the best job in France, I am the manager of the biodiversity platform. While research programs are a priority, we also undertake contracts with environmental agencies, engineering companies, harbour authorities and oil companies, these contracts help fund my research activities. We also collaborate with the molecular lab, especially with regard to salaries, one of these people has come with me to Australia and Cerise has been working with Elena as well as Pat and I on the worm project.

I have had three grants to come to Australia, to work the Australian Museum marine invertebrate team, the first one from FASIC (French Embassy/Campus France) for 2 weeks in 2018 and An Excellence Initiative of Bordeaux University for 7 months in 2020 which was cut short due to Covid and was resumed for 2 months in 2022.

So now let me talk about my research on marine worms. I started to work on their taxonomy six years ago, so why? Because they are very beautiful, represented by many shapes and colours, but also because they are very important for marine environments. They are present from estuaries to the abyss, from polar to tropical regions, they are also one of the main components of benthic habitat both in terms of abundance and number of species. They are also very important for the trophic topic web for many fish species and finally and most important, there are still many new species to describe. There has not been a polychaete taxonomist in France since the 1980’s, so I decided to occupy this ecological niche. So how did I meet Pat?

Every year in France, the French Marine Lab network organize a one-week technical workshop. During this workshop, we invite an international expert to give us a course on a particular group for a week and to date we have courses on molluscs, crustaceans and in 2016 on worms. During this week we have lectures, share literature and keys, and examine freshly collected material as well as checking the identification of our material. So in 2016, I invited Pat to run a workshop on Spaghetti worms (Terebellidae) in Caen, immediately prior to the International Polychaete conference held in Cardiff, Wales. We realized during the week that there a lot of problems with the identification of French and European species. So, after discussion over several glasses of French wine, we decided that it would be good for me to undertake a taxonomic PhD aimed at revising the French species of terebellids. and Pat accepted my invitation to become my supervisor. We both became involved in a European study focused on, the cosmopolitan species Terebellides stroemii which was described by Sars back in1835 from Norway. Together we sequenced 100’s of specimens of this supposedly cosmopolitan species which has been recorded from around the world as illustrated in the figure. So, we found that in fact these records just from northern Europe did not represent one species but 27 different clades based on molecular data, and to date only some of these have been assigned to species combining both molecular and morphological data, this is an ongoing project. So categorically this is not a cosmopolitan species.

So let us now go onto my PhD thesis, “Revision of spaghetti worms (Annelida, Terebellidae (sensu lato) from the French coast” which was supervised by Pat Hutchings and Xavier Montaudouin Professor at University of Bordeaux. Certainly, the workshop had shown that the French fauna of terebellids was in need of a major revision with many species needing to be redescribed and new species to be described.

Spaghetti worms are tubiculous, can be solitary or live in dense aggregations with reduced mobility, and some species can be regarded as ecosystem engineers such as the sand mason worms. They are selective deposit feeders and they use their tentacles to convey food particles to the mouth, as shown in the video. This video shows why they are called spaghetti worms and how they can modify the surface sediments. My thesis focussed on the five families which compose Terebellidae (sensu lato) using both morphological and molecular data. In the first paper on the Trichobranchidae we described nine new species, including one named T. ceneresi to celebrate 80 years of CNRS in 2019, and another was named after my daughter T. lilasae. In the second paper on the Polycirridae we described eight new species, one of them was dedicated to Geoff Read an editor of WoRMS, P. readi who does so much work to maintain the website. Another one was dedicated to Chris Glasby from the Darwin Museum (Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory) who is also a specialist on terebellids as well as a friend.

The third paper was on the Thelepodidae and Telothelepodidae and we described three new species and one introduced species from Asia, Thelepus japonicus found in amongst the oyster, the first record of this species in Europe. Another species was named after Sue Lindsay from Macquarie University, Streblosoma lyndsayae who is probably the best SEM technician I have ever met and worked with. The last paper on the Terebellidae (sensu stricto) describes 11 new species and decided to have some fun in choosing names. One species Lanice kellyslateri was named after Kelly Slater a world surfing champion and also an environmentalist and he was very pleased to have a worm named after him. Another species was named after Banksy, a brilliant street artist who always convey powerful messages. And once again, his team also replied saying thank you but unfortunately, I haven't received any painting! So, the reason why I choose to name these worms after these people was to get the press interested and to be able to talk about the importance of taxonomy, and here I show the various sites which published stories re these worms including my favourite surfing magazine.

The second part of my talk is about blood worms. With Pat, I have been working on blood worms (Marphysa spp.) for several years. These worms are used by recreational fishers around the world. In Arcachon Bay there are 12 companies employing 26 people collecting these worms which are exported live every day to fishing shops in France by air and more than 1 million worms are collected each year just from Arcachon Bay. Because of the value of these worms managing this resource is not easy, the value of these worms is higher than the value of lobsters! For many years these worms in Arcachon Bay were regarded as Marphysa sanguinea a supposedly cosmopolitan species. I looked at the worms being collected and using both molecular and morphological characters, it became obvious that 2 species were being collected, one being M. sanguinea and the other an undescribed species which we then described as new and named it after my son Victor, M. victori. My son is a keen fisherman and he is proud to be using his species when he is fishing. In 2020 when I was in Sydney we compared the molecular sequences with some species which Pat had subsequently described with one of her Chinese students Yubin Liu, and they were identical and also the same as a Japanese colleague had found. So we concluded that our recently describe species was introduced from Japan with the oysters in the early 1970’s as we know that China exports live blood worms around SE Asia for recreational fishing. We also suggest that this introduced species which is restricted to oyster beds may now occur elsewhere in France and elsewhere in Europe where oysters are transported by the aquaculture industry.

So now to finish, we have been working on species from the Pacific and we have just described three species from Papua New Guinea. These species are very interesting as they are probably the first record of Marphysa occurring in the deep sea and all are associated with sunken wood. We have also described a new species from India and currently we are working on new species from Victoria, Australia as well as ones from the Philippines, so you see this is a never-ending story. In conclusion, this collaboration with Pat is a very fruitful one, having obtained three grants, received my PhD, attended three scientific conferences, written 3 Australian Museum blogs, numerous press articles, TV and radio broadcasts, co-authored 14 peer reviewed papers with 44 co-authors from many countries. And we still have so much to do, and this co-operation is very exciting. So even in an area where the polychaete fauna was supposed to be well known many new species have been discovered. In part this is because so called cosmopolitan species have on investigation been found to represent suites of undescribed species. I have been lucky to have crossed paths with Pat and really highlights the importance of mentorship. So thank you, everyone. Many thanks to the Marine Invertebrate team. It was a pleasure to work with you during my visits to Sydney. Thank you to the Australian Museum staff in welcoming me and Cerise and for organising this seminar.

Every year since 2010, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) organises a one-week taxonomic course and invites an international taxonomic expert to provide lectures and practicals to benthic biologists working in the different French marine laboratories. In 2016, Nicolas Lavesque took the initiative to invite Dr Pat Hutchings, AM Senior Fellow and expert on polychaetes, to give a course on the family terebellids (AKA Spaghetti worms.) After a long discussion over (several!) glasses of French wine, Nicolas decided to do a taxonomic PhD aimed at revising the French species of terebellids, and offered Pat to be his supervisor – and she accepted this adventure!

Since 2017, Nicolas has obtained three grants to come down under, and the duo has published one thesis, 14 scientific papers and described 33 new species of worms. Most of these news species have been described from French coastal waters, which were considered to be a well-known area, studied for several centuries by early taxonomists and benthic ecologists. Use of new tools, like SEM and molecular, have revealed the existence of many cryptic or pseudo-cryptic species. In parallel of Spaghetti worms, they are also passionate about the species belonging to the genus Marphysa, used worldwide as bait. Behind the cosmopolitan species M. sanguinea (Montagu, 1813), they have discovered many new species from France, India and more recently from Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Australia. The story is far from over! And long may the French Australian co-operation continue.