Kimberley Marine Life – The Woodside Collection Project

Katherine Veness's blog | Created 9 years ago

Over the past six years, scientists and researchers from the Western Australian Museum and partner agencies have been studying the marine life of the Kimberley region, in an initiative known as the Woodside Collection Project.

The main goal of this project was to learn more about the biogeographic distribution of marine life throughout this expansive region. 

Image of a Diver collecting specimens for the Woodside Collection Project

Diver collecting specimens for the Woodside Collection Project
Image copyright WA Museum 

Several surveys have been conducted to the region since 2009. In that time researchers have discovered a rich diversity of life living there, from fish and corals to polychaetes and crustaceans.

Video footage was recorded throughout the project, documenting the team’s finds and observations. Some of the featured organisms include sea whips, sea cucumbers, pelagic fish, such as trevally and barracuda, and blue swimmer crabs, and can be explored on the Museum website.

Project Highlights

Many exciting discoveries were made throughout the Project. Here are some of the highlights from Museum footage:

Image of part of a reef system in the Kimberley

Part of a reef system in the Kimberley
Image copyright WA Museum 

The importance of DNA

Small tissue samples taken from pelagic fish and other specimens are preserved in 100% ethanol and sent back to the Museum for identification at a later date. Species can be difficult to tell apart, or ‘cryptic’, and so it is important to analyse their DNA in order to properly identify their species. 


The group of animals referred to as echinoderms were also studied throughout the project. Echinoderm species include feather stars, sea stars and holothurians. These species, along with all echinoderms, share one common feature – radial symmetry.

Radial symmetry can be difficult to explain.  Essentially, it means that an animal has identical parts arranged in a circular fashion around a central axis. So, echinoderms have five identical parts arranged in a circular fashion around a central axis. They don’t have a left and a right side like us (i.e. bi-lateral symmetry).

Catching Glass Cracking Shrimps

Stomatopods, or prawn killers, are intriguing creatures. They are known to crack aquarium glass with their modified hammer-like legs- these small animals certainly aren’t to be messed with.

There are two main types of stomatopods, commonly known as mantis shrimps (because their claws resemble a praying mantis’ claws) and prawn killers. Both have 5 pairs of clawed legs. The mantis shrimps have very large, grasping claws with sharp spines of the second pair of (clawed) legs and these are used to catch small fish and other crustaceans.  

The prawn killers don’t have grasping claws on these legs but instead they are modified into a swollen, hammer-like structure, which they use to batter their prey. These are the stomatopods that have been known to break the glass of aquaria.  They are sometimes caught in trawls but, despite their name, there is no evidence to suggest that they kill commercial prawns or crabs.

Catching a prawn killer is particularly tricky, and requires an expert set of eyes and hands. They are colourful animals, but are also well camouflaged in their coral reef homes. On top of this, the mantis shrimp is lightning fast, making them even more difficult to catch.

Yellow Spotted Scorpion Fish

In 2013, the team succeeded in finding the first live yellow spotted scorpion fish on Ashmore Reef. This fish has a wide distribution between the Red Sea and the central Pacific, but it had not before been recorded in this particular location. As its name suggests, it has venomous spines on the dorsal fin, and only grows to around 7 cm, making it quite difficult to find in its coral home. 

Reef Stonefish

Stonefish are notoriously difficult to spot, which is why the project team were excited to be able to share footage of a reef stonefish found during their 2012 Kimberley expedition. Stonefish display two main forms of self-protection: camouflage and venom. Reef stonefish have 13 venomous spines on their back, which inject venom into anything unlucky enough to try to attack, or step on, this hardy animal. Stonefish venom is extremely painful, and little can be done to treat it – your body has to heal itself in this case! 

Diver examining Kimberley reef as part of the Woodside Collection Project

Diver examining Kimberley reef as part of the Woodside Collection Project
Image copyright WA Museum 

Channel 10 News Item

In case you missed it, Western Australian Museum Curator of Fishes Dr. Glen Moore was interviewed for Channel 10 Eyewitness News on the 24th of November 2014. Watch it below: