Queen’s researcher leads efforts to protect newly recognised oyster species

·2-min read

Work is under way in Malaysia to protect a rare new species of oyster discovered by a team led by a Queen’s University researcher.

Dr Julia Sigwart, from the School of Biological Sciences, and colleagues named the new species Crassotrea (Magallana) saidii.

It was discovered during a collaboration with academics at Universiti Putra Malaysia aimed at increasing the oyster population in the Muar River in the state of Johor, south of the Malay Peninsula.

While local fishers knew about the species, it had not been officially named because until DNA testing took place, scientists were not convinced it differed from a similar, more common species.

It lives in one tiny estuary and may be threatened by urbanisation.

Dr Sigwart said fishing in the area is carried out in the traditional way, involving free diving and collecting fish by hand.

“The fishers depend on catching and selling these oysters as their source of income but the process is recognised as being horrendously dangerous and tragically one of the fishermen who was involved in the project died this year,” she said.

A local businessman, Md Saidi Bin Mohamed, keen to raise awareness of the oyster – considered a delicacy with a unique flavour and once only allowed to be eaten by the Sultan of Johor and his closest advisers – was concerned about whether these fishing processes were sustainable and contacted the Universiti Putra Malaysia to see if they could help.

Dr Sigwart, whose research group at Queen’s works to understand global patterns of biodiversity, was tasked with documenting all oyster species in a practice known as taxonomy and says that there are around 20 species of oysters that can be eaten.

As part of this project, she named the new species Crassotrea (Magallana) saidii after Md Saidi Bin Mohamed, who has been actively promoting research and conservation for the sustainability of this oyster since 2013.

The name recognises his dedication, commitment, passion, and discovery of the new species.

The newly named species is about 120mm by 6mm with a relatively flat shell with brown scales.

Dr Sigwart said a species cannot be protected unless its existence is confirmed through scientific validation.

“Official validation helps manage sustainability as scientists have more influence in encouraging the government and those who fish to protect it,” she said.

“It also ensures it has the best possible market value when it is sold as food.

“The population does seem stable but it’s worrying that the only known occurrence of this species in the world exists in such a small area and we don’t know what is coming downstream that might threaten it.

“Tropical South East Asia is a very biodiverse region and this particular area of the Muar River is a rich and important habitat which can tell us a lot about climate protection and global biodiversity.”

The discovery of the species is the subject of a research paper published in Marine Biodiversity on Tuesday.

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