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An interest in the small and seemingly ugly: Prof Carol Simon
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 19/11/2020

​​For International Polychaete Day in the middle of the year, Prof Carol Simon of the Department of Botany and Zoology created a poster on bait species that South African anglers use. The exercise combined two of her passions: photography, and polychaetes, a group of about 8000 species of bristle worms which include a whole host of marine types.

About her interest in especially the marine species, she says: “People do not appreciate them because many are so small. Others, especially the bait species, are impressive in size. People hear the word 'worm', and just pull up their noses. If they see them the way we do, under the microscope, they will be stunned at how beautiful they are."

Prof Simon, who hails from Port Elizabeth, is particularly interested in intertidal species that are economically or ecologically important. These include species that are pests on cultured molluscs, used as bait by anglers, or are non-indigenous and might therefore pose a risk to indigenous species and aquaculture industries such as the abalone and cultured oyster industry.

“Clarifying their taxonomy helps us to better understand their biodiversity and distribution in South Africa and globally. Knowing more about their reproductive strategies and gene flow amongst populations helps us understand how pests and aliens may spread and how vulnerable bait species are to over-exploitation," she explains.

She is particularly intrigued in the many different ways by which different species of polychaetes can reproduce.

“Some are hermaphrodites (meaning that they have both male and female reproductive organs), some produce live offspring, while some reproduce asexually, breaking into little fragments that each regenerate to form new individuals or by forming little buds, so that it then seems as if they have whole lot of babies that break off from them. Some lay lots of eggs, but only fertilise a few," she tries to simplify matters. “That's a whole range for only one group of animals."

Her interest in these species stems from her postgraduate years at Rhodes University, and her good fortune to be mentored by very enthusiastic academics in the fields of aquaculture and fisheries science such as Prof Peter Britz and Prof Horst Kaiser, and Prof Christopher McQuaid who influenced her understanding of the ecology of marine species.

After she received her BSc honours degree (working on sea urchins and bats) in 1991, she started her first job in the mammal section of the Amatole Museum in King Williams' Town, but was quickly lured back to academia with the lure of further studies.

“For my PhD degree I worked on farmed abalone, but shortly into the project I started to find the polychaete worms that live on them far more interesting," she laughingly remembers her formative years as a polychaete specialist.

Prof Simon has worked at Stellenbosch University's Department of Botany and Zoology since 2008, after completing postdoctoral research at Rhodes University. Today, she is president of the International Polychaete Association, and is committee chair for the organisation's 2022 conference, to be held in Stellenbosch. She also represents Africa at the International Society for Invertebrate Reproduction and Development and has been serving as a council member of the Zoological Society of Southern Africa since 2006. In the past she was also co-editor of the Society's newsletter, Aardvark, and until recently served as co-editor of African Zoology, the society journal.

Over the years, her research has taken her to many a shoreline and aquaculture farms in South Africa, from Sodwana Bay to the Knysna lagoon and anglers' favourite spots along the West Coast.

While fieldwork has its perks, Prof Simon admits that she finds true satisfaction in investigating species of interest under the microscope. It's a job that she finds “both peaceful and thrilling, and every bit as thrilling as forensic research." It also allows her to photograph the species in detail, and to then produce plates to go with research articles.

“The opportunity to identify new species is always there, because this is a class that is not often studied in South Africa," admits Prof Simon.

This taxonomist already described her first species in 2009. She has since been involved in the description of 17 species new to science, of which 14 are indigenous to South Africa. She also helped identify four alien species, of which three are pests of farmed molluscs. The new species include ones associated with wild molluscs and free-living species. Among these are the three Syllis species from the south coast of South Africa recently described together with Safiyya Sedick, a past MSc student, and published in the international journal Zootaxa.

Prof Simon fully realises that “one cannot build a research career by waiting on new pests to arrive so that you can identify them."

So while most of her past research focussed on species associated with oysters and abalone, she has expanded her research to also focus on bait species that anglers collect along South African shores, such as bloodworms, musselworms and moonshine worms.

Recently she was involved in the identification of a big bait species, the moonshine worm, that appeared in the very sensitive Knysna estuary in recent years. It was first identified in Australia, and was already quite common in the Port Elizabeth area.

Identifying species, says Prof Simon, is a bit like solving a puzzle.

She strongly believes that taxonomists are not given enough credit for the painstaking work they do, and that, in fact, more are needed as technology (especially in terms of genetics) that helps to distinguish one species from another is constantly improving.

“Using genetics only to distinguish between species is however not enough – we need to know what species look like," she adds.

“The reality is that a lot of ecological work includes identifying species, and consequently ecologists rely on species descriptions. Taxonomy should therefore be more popular. The irony is that the more work you do, the more you realise that you need taxonomists. The work done 50 years ago was great for then. But we have come a long way since then. We now have better genetic tools and better microscopes to help us tease out differences between species.

“The result is that we actually need more taxonomists because we are finding that there are more marine invertebrate species, including polychaetes, in South Africa than we actually thought we had."

For the next few weeks, we will introduce you to some of SU`s researchers whose work is featured in the latest edition of Research at Stellenbosch University.