5 minutes with Dr Paul Muir, Research Officer and Collection Manager, Corals

Dr Paul Muir is the Research Officer and Collection Manager for Corals at Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville. His research interests lie in mesophotic (deep reef) corals, coral bleaching, coral biogeography, coral taxonomy and marine microbiology.

What is your favourite object/species in the collection and why?

Welllll…….there’s about 50 000 coral specimens in our collection, so it’s difficult to say!  But, there is this completely spherical specimen that looks just like a large softball- absolutely perfectly round. Apparently it was formed in a shallow sandy area with strong wave action – like a snow-ball it rolled around through its life gradually growing, but never resting. Definitely a non-conformer as ‘all’ corals grow either attached to or sitting on the sea floor.    

 Do you have any interesting facts about your specialty area?

Corals are such amazing and weird animals that there are so many curious facts! For instance, corals are animals that have microscopic algae growing in their cells that provide most of their energy – all they need to do is stretch out and sun bathe to make a living. But, their couch-potato lifestyle has meant that they never move (well, apart from the ball-coral) and they are very big-boned – their skeleton makes up about 99% of their body mass.

Did you know that most corals are actually colonies comprised of many individual polyp animals that are clones- they are all genetically identical. The biggest coral (not in our collection) is possibly a large colony in Taiwan- it was a national treasure and visited by many divers until (would you believe) a submarine crashed into it! True. I promise!

Coral polyps from Diploastrea heliopora. Credit QM Collection

How many species are waiting to be formally described in my area?

Recent genetics techniques are finding new species every day – you could joke that eventually there could be one species for each coral that is on the reef. The possibilities are that infinite right now.

Tell us a little bit about your area and why do you love working in this specific research area?

Corals are horribly endangered – apologies for the gloom, but they really are declining around the world at an alarming rate. Coastal development, overfishing, pollution were already making huge dents in their population worldwide and then along came climate change effects such as coral bleaching. So….it’s great to be working on them and looking at how we can safeguard their reefs. Being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Paul Muir diving in Chagos in 2015

What is one of the most interesting facts you have discovered through working at the museum?

That for the main group of reef corals (the Acropora), their global distribution is strongly influenced by the amount of sunlight they get over winter. This also helps to explain why their species diversity increases towards the equator.

What is your favourite gallery/exhibition at the museum (current or past) and why?

Well (don’t tell my boss), but it’s actually a cultures and histories display of North Queensland indigenous cultures, past and present. Fantastic mix of fact, fun, colour, sight and sound. Unfortunately this exhibition closed some time ago. Would love to see it back.

Written by Dr Paul Muir. Find out more about Paul’s work here.