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Bristling with biodiversity: Unravelling South Africa’s Polychaete knowledge one ‘Day’ at a time

About this event

We invite you to attend our webinar as we celebrate International Polychaete Day on 1 July 2021

Bristling with biodiversity: Unravelling South Africa’s Polychaete knowledge one ‘Day’ at a time


More than 10,000 species of polychaetes (marine annelids) have been described globally. They range from < 1 mm to > 3 m long, and this diversity in body form is reflected in the diversity of habitats they occupy: from intertidal to the deep sea, benthic to pelagic, and free-living, symbiotic, or parasitic. Many species are modified to inhabit novel, sometimes challenging, environments including whale falls and superheated hydrothermal vents. Others are economically valuable and used as bait by fishermen and food in fish farms, as indicators of environmental health, or are pests on farmed molluscs. The first step in revealing this astonishing diversity in form and function is accurate species identification, which depends on reliable identification keys. A resource used globally for identifying polychaetes is A monograph on the Polychaeta of Southern Africa, published by John Day in 1967, which contains clear and easy to follow descriptions and illustrations to more than 700 species. Despite our improved understanding of polychaete taxonomy and species distributions, this body of work has never been updated. Thus, researchers and environmental practitioners who use it are potentially perpetuating erroneous polychaete biodiversity information, such as the identities of many species contained in the monograph which are not indigenous to the region or are purported to have cosmopolitan distributions. Recent taxonomic revisions have seen many such species (e.g., Spirobranchus kraussii, Marphysa sanguinea) dissolve into complexes of species with restricted distributions, and concerningly, previously unrecognised alien species have been identified. We estimate that polychaete diversity in southern Africa has been underestimated by more than 500 species, since at least half the species reported here are cosmopolitans that need to be resolved. Others have very wide, local distributions that are likely hiding cryptic diversity. As a point of departure, we’ve developed lists of taxa that should be prioritised for revision. To facilitate these revisions, we encourage closer collaboration among ecologists, molecular biologists, and taxonomists.

We plan to host a polychaete taxonomic workshop to expedite revisions and train students and professionals in accurate identifications of polychaetes. The workshop will take place in the run-up to the International Polychaete Conference to be hosted by Stellenbosch University and IZIKO South African Museum. Please join us as we uncover the exciting world of polychaetes, and to see how we can collectively contribute to the next chapter of South Africa’s polychaete heritage. 

If you are interested in attending the conference and or workshop, please contact corne@savetcon.co.za or csimon@sun.ac.za

If you require any assistance with registration or accessing the webinar, please contact Corné Engelbrecht at corne@savetcon.co.za


Hosted by

  • Guest speaker
    Carol Simon University of Stellenbosch

  • Guest speaker
    SS G
    Safiyya Sedick