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Benoit Dayrat – Redefining Taxonomy

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Benoit Dayrat – Redefining Taxonomy

Benoit Dayrat

If the prospect of wading in thigh-deep mangrove swamps surrounded by vipers and malaria infected mosquitoes sounds like an appealing proposition, then Benoit Dayrat (ben-WAH DAY-rah) is your man. As the biology department’s newest recruit he is a naturalist in the truest sense, with a passion for biodiversity which takes him to remote corners of the world.

Freshly arrived from the University of California Merced campus where he worked for eight years as one of the founding faculty members, Dayrat was surrounded by unpacked boxes in an office without a shelf or computer in sight when he took the time to talk about his work that is contributing new species of invertebrates to science.

Dayrat spends around two months per year out in the field (his students are often clocking twice this amount), currently in regions of South East Asia where there is the highest concentration of mangrove forests.  As these swamps are so difficult to negotiate they have been poorly studied in terms of their invertebrate fauna.

Governments are realizing the importance of mangroves as natural barriers against storms and tsunamis as whole towns have been wiped out in areas that have been cleared of trees. Mangrove forests have been the victim of human interference on a massive scale – huge areas have been cleared for fish and shrimp farming, utilizing the wood for construction and for coal. Even in areas that seem wild and remote it is difficult to find mangrove that has not been impacted by humans. In Sumatra half the island was covered in mangrove 150 years ago, but now only a few small patches remain.

The process of collection and identification of mangrove fauna is not a simple one. First a local collaborator needs to be on hand for translation and logistical purposes, then recruitment of a local fisherman to assist in the location of the oldest mangrove forests which contain the best diversity of trees.  A boat then takes Dayrat and his team up the river at low tide so they can anchor and move around the forest on foot – sometimes sinking into thigh-deep mud. Among the hazards they encounter are mosquitoes, crocodiles and vipers – hardly an enticing prospect for recruiting undergraduates in the study. Dayrat says that the excitement of discovery compensates for the danger and discomfort.  As invertebrate species are collected, they are taken to a local lab for identification.

Dayrat’s interests expand into biodiversity patterns which plot the general distribution of species diversity on earth. Coral reefs have been widely investigated in the coral triangle of South East Asia where marine diversity is highest, but little has been done to address the mangrove diversity so hotspots are currently poorly known and of great interest to conservation biologists who use this data.  Some amazing examples of adaptation have been discovered in groups of invertebrates that live in mangroves and have transitioned to the high rain forest and this is another area of study for Dayrat and his team.  In particular, a mangrove slug onchidiidae has adapted to this change in environment which poses many interesting evolutionary questions.  How do they transition from a marine to terrestrial environment on a mountain top when the physiological stresses are so demanding and complicated?  How come a species can remain anatomically identical after such a transition and is it possible this is a repeating occurrence over time?  With approximately 4.5 million undiscovered species across the world, Dayrat has plenty of scope to continue his mission.

Benoit Dayrat may be the museum of the future, the way he is redefining taxonomy and the foundations of biology.

[MH]