This Week In History: Studying non-native organisms that crossed the Pacific with the 2011 Tsunami

Scientists at the Royal BC Museum work tirelessly, collecting and cataloguing specimens from across this province.

Which become a vital record of what is living here now, what has been here before, and what may be arriving, at any time in the future.

“The animals that I study are these guys right here, so they’re living on these mussels” says Henry Choong, the Museum’s Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, as he points to tiny organisms within a specimen jar.

Henry Choong studies marine creatures with no backbone, such as crabs, snails, jellyfish, even tiny organisms.

“Really, in order to understand how evolution works, how species change, we really need to look at how organisms vary” explains Choong.

It’s why collecting specimens, and maintaining museum collections, is vital.

“What collections represent are not only a record of the past, but really, they represent what is actually happening now.

“It’s a continuing record. It’s a library of life, not only of the past, but [the] present, and it informs us of what could possibly happen in the future.”

The tsunami from the devastating March 2011 earthquake in Japan presented scientists with an unprecedented look at how marine organisms are transported by debris.

“For the first time we were able to follow an event which transported not only single organisms, but whole communities of these benthic organisms across a very large space.”

And a significant amount of time: fifteen months at sea.

“One of the first landings, in terms of a big piece of debris, was the dock, which landed in Oregon.

“This particular one was one-hundred-eighty-eight tons, with well over one-hundred non-native and potentially invasive species on board.

Including crabs, barnacles, seaweed, and various invertebrates.

“We actually have been able to document several Japanese species that were transported across the ocean.

“Some arrived dead, some arrived alive, so we were able to show that that sort of transport is possible.”

Choong points to a jar on his specimen table. “This invasive seastar was among the tsunami debris – its already damaged native species in Australia.”

And that brings us back to the importance of collecting.

“What we learn from all this is [that] we need to know…to learn more about what our own biodiversity is all about, in order to be able to answer questions like: is this particular organism from japan?”

And to answer that question, scientists continue to collect, and study, the existing biodiversity of our shorelines and beyond.