Women marine scientists share their stories

Discovering a new coral reef species: Meet Francesca Benzoni from Tara’s research team

Image courtesy of Francesca Benzoni and ZooKeys.
Echinophyllia tarae

A new shallow water coral species, Echinophyllia tarae sp. n., from the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia, was described by Francesca Benzoni after she participated in an expedition on the Tara research vessel. The remote and poorly known Gambier islands were explored by the Tara Oceans international research expedition in 2011. Scleractinia, also called stony corals, are ancient and structurally simple marine animals which have the ability to form hard skeletons and are involved in the build-up of coral reefs.

This species is named after the Tara vessel which allowed the exploration of coral reefs in Gambier. Moreover, the name “tara” in the Polynesian language may refer to a spiny, pointed object, which applies well to the new species typically featuring pointed skeletal structures. In the same language, Tara is also the name of a sea goddess.

Stony corals such as Echinophyllia tarae are currently under threat by the effects of global warming, ocean acidification and anthropogenic changes of reef structures. Although corals represent a relatively well studied group of charismatic marine invertebrates, much has still to be understood of their biology, evolution, diversity, and biogeography. The discovery of this new species in French Polynesia confirms that our knowledge of hard coral diversity is still incomplete and that the exploration efforts of recent scientific expeditions like Tara Oceans can lead to new insights in a remote and previously poorly studied locations.

According to a paper in Current Biology1, 1,520 stony coral species have been described so far, at least 93 new species are collected awaiting description and perhaps more than 500 are not yet discovered. The decade of discovery continues2 with already 6 stony coral species described as new to science only this year3. Data on the distribution of stony coral species is gathered in our Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS).

Image courtesy of Francesca Benzoni

Francesca Benzoni, a marine biologist specialized in the ecology and integrated systematics of reef building scleractinian corals, was kind enough to answer our questions about her exciting discovery.

Can you tell us something about the new reef coral species described in your recently published paper?

Echinophyllia tarae, the new species of coral recently published is a reef building one. Hence, it joins the other c.a. 600 known coral species which contribute to the formation and growth of the reef ecosystem. It was discovered in the Gambier Islands, French Polynesia, a remote group of islands surrounded by diverse but poorly studied coral reefs.

The discovery and description of a new species of marine organism is not, per se, a rare event. However, on the one hand, specialists in taxonomy are in a way a group of scientists threatened by extinction. And, on the other hand, several groups of marine invertebrates still represent partially explored mines of biodiversity.

Image courtesy of Francesca Benzoni and ZooKeys.
Echinophyllia tarae

What is striking about the discovery of this species is that corals have been intensively studied by a large number of scientists in the last decades because of the local and global threats they are currently, and increasingly, exposed to. Moreover, Echinophyllia tarae is neither small nor rare in the Gambier, and its bright colours make it easily detectable underwater. So, its description is a reminder that the diversity of corals is still to be fully discovered and that scientific expeditions like Tara Oceans taking specialists to remote locations are still of great value for marine science.

This new species was found in the Gambier Islands (French Polynesia) during one of the Tara Oceans Expedition. How did you join Tara Expeditions and how was your experience?

I was introduced to the team of scientists who were working on the Tara Oceans project by a colleague in reason of my specialization in corals. The Tara Oceans project mainly addresses marine plankton through an innovative and highly integrative approach. However, Eric Karsenti, the scientific Director of the project, was interested in including the study of coral reefs because the symbiosis between a planktonic alga and corals is at the base of the functioning and outstanding diversity of the coral reef ecosystem.

© S.Bollet-Tara Expeditions.

I presented a project involving an international team of researchers specialized in different aspects of reef science, and we joined the Tara Oceans team. I have been lucky enough to be involved in several scientific expeditions and projects, but none so far was like the Tara Oceans. It was a challenging, intense, and ever changing experience, both from the scientific and the personal point of view. A learning experience like no other for me so far and a scientific goldmine. My colleagues and I have specimens, samples, and data to study for several years.

As you might know one of the two UNESCO global priorities is Gender Equality. IOC is committed to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in ocean science. What would you say to a young woman willing to start a career in ocean science?

I can share what has worked for me. A strong motivation, continuous study, and chasing the opportunities which are out there are at the base of what can help a woman start a career in ocean science. And, most of all, a collaborative and open attitude. Without the support and the collaboration of many of my present colleagues I would have never gone anywhere. Certainly, I would have never been involved in the Tara Oceans expedition. Being a woman in science has been challenging times, but a challenge worth undertaking because it was what I had always dreamt to become.

In which ways do you think IOC can work with female marine scientists to promote gender equality?

I believe education and circulation of information play a pivotal role in giving equality to women in marine science. Sharing experiences is one of the apparently most simple but definitely most effective ways of spreading the valuable knowledge cumulated by others. For this reason I particularly appreciate the IOC initiative allowing women marine scientists to share their experiences and young women willing to start a career in marine science being able to read about them. Possibly, a continuation of this action could take the form of a workshop also involving women who specialized in cultural issues and communication and leading to a deeper sharing of the information in the form of online publications. Also, passing on the experience in the form of some practical guidelines for a woman starting to work in the field and/or on boats could be of much help.


Since 1998, Francesca Benzoni has been studying the composition and spatio-temporal dynamics of coral dominated benthic assemblages in the Indo-Pacific. She is specialized in hard coral systematics and species boundaries. She is currently involved in, or leading, different research projects addressing the study of the taxonomy, ecology, biodiversity, and biogeography of scleractinians through multidisciplinary approaches. The paper devoted to the new species was published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Benzoni F. (2013) Echinophyllia tarae sp. n. (Cnidaria, Anthozoa, Scleractinia), a new reef coral species from the Gambier Islands, French Polynesia

[1] Appeltans and 120 co-authors (2012). The Magnitude of Global Marine Species Diversity. Current Biology, 22 (23): 2181-2202
[2] http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/ioc-oceans/single-view-oceans/news/ocean_life_the_marine_age_of_discovery/
[3] Appeltans W, Bouchet P, Boxshall GA, De Broyer C, de Voogd NJ, Gordon DP, Hoeksema BW, Horton T, Kennedy M, Mees J, Poore GCB, Read G, Stöhr S, Walter TC, Costello MJ. (eds) (2012). World Register of Marine Species. Accessed at http://www.marinespecies.org on 2013-07-31.


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