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Quebec Barcoding - What the heck is a bryozoan?

We’re off on the road again, and this time we are headed to Quebec on fieldwork for our barcoding project. This project will create a barcode library for Atlantic Canadian marine invertebrate species. It's funded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada under a program that aims to develop tools for monitoring Marine Protected Areas. Barcodes are short fragments of DNA that we can use to identify species instead of examining their physical characteristics. However, this is only possible if the species are already in a barcoding reference database, and we estimate that over half of our marine species are not yet barcoded. To learn more about barcodes check out Christy’s blog from last year Last year, during the first phase of the project, Christy completed a gap analysis to determine which marine species barcodes were missing with a primary gap being from the Phylum Bryozoa where few species had been barcoded to date.

Bryozoans can be erect, like Dendrobeania murrayana (top) or encrusting like Parasmittina jeffreysi (bottom). Credit: HMSC.

Bryozoans or moss animals are colonial, aquatic organisms. Their colonies are composed of individuals called zooids. Bryozoan colonies can grow over rocks, shells and seaweed in thin sheets or form upright fan or bush structures. Although all zooids in a colony are genetically identical, they can look very different and perform different jobs, including feeding, excretion, defence and reproduction. Bryozoans are filter feeders and use a crown of tentacles, called a lophophore, to take small particles, such as bacteria and plankton, from seawater.

The bryozoan Flustrellidra hispida feeding. Credit: Mary Spencer-Jones.

Unfortunately, there are currently no bryozoan specialists working on the east coast of Canada, so for this trip we have imported some from the United Kingdom! Mary Spencer Jones is the Senior Curator of Recent Bryozoa from the Natural History Museum in London, Andrea Waeschenbach, also from the Natural History Museum, is a Researcher who specialises in molecular systematics, and Professor Jo Porter from Heriot Watt University.

The bryozoan team Andrea, Mary and Jo did occasionally escape the lab to sample Canadian delicacies like poutine.

We’ve chosen to go to Québec to get samples of more northern fauna for our project. The Gulf of St Lawrence has much colder waters than our Bay of Fundy, so we find Arctic and boreal species there. We’ll be working with Explos-Nature (; a non-profit organization with some similar activities as Huntsman Marine but in Québec). Their team have extensive diving experience in the local area and will guide us to the best spots. Our survey is within the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park and we have permits from both Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada to allow us to sample.

The team will travel from Huntsman Marine to Les Escoumins and the Saguenay Fjord, both are within the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park. Credit: Map data from Google.

Cool facts about bryozoan

  • Many bryozoans have calcium carbonate skeletons – we identify their species by looking at the shape of the zooids. We often have to look at them at very high magnification to see clearly. We sometimes must use a scanning electron microscope to do so.

A colony of the bryozoan Dendrobeania murrayana seen under the scanning electron microscope. Credit: HMSC.

  • Romans used to grind up bryozoans to use as toothpaste. Their calcium carbonate skeleton is abrasive to scrub off dirt and stains. However, the Romans might not have been too discriminating as they also used urine and mouse brains for teeth cleaning!

  • We can use the chemicals in bryozoans (or the bacterial colonies that live inside the bryozoan) to develop new drugs. Bryozoans produce chemicals to stop predators from eating them. Many of these have medicinal properties against diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

  • Bryozoans can grow very big. One specimen of the potato crisp bryozoan Pentapora foliacea trawled up in the UK was over two metres wide. Sadly, bryozoans rarely grow this large now as they are easily damaged by mobile fishing gear (and scientific sampling gear!).

A colony of the potato crisp bryozoan Pentapora foliacea. Credit: Natural History Museum, London.

  • Some bryozoans have structures called avicularia that look like bird heads. The beak snaps at predators to deter them from eating the colony or removes organisms that try to settle on it.

A colony of Dendrobeania murrayana in close up showing birds head avicularia. Credit: Mary Spencer-Jones.

  • We can find bryozoans from the seashore to the deep sea. The deepest a bryozoan has been found so far was at 8,300 m in the Kermadec Trench in the Pacific Ocean.


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