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Scientists find only two rare ‘suicidal’ sea cucumbers


GEORGE TOWN: After three nights of diving, expedition scientists only found two rare nocturnal and “suicidal” Golden Sea Cucumbers in Kedah’s Songsong Islands, the only place that this species is found in the world.

“If I hold it in my hand, it will feel my body heat and commit suicide by dissolving into mush,” said expedition leader Prof Dr Zulfigar Yasin.

Even more amazing is that after both specimens were safely brought to the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (Cemacs) in Muka Head, Teluk Bahang, they became three.

The smaller one launched its de­­fence mechanism, said expedition echinoderm specialist Sim Yee Kwang.

“It couldn’t stand the stress of being transported and split itself into two. Now they are se­­parate individuals. The part where the mouth was is turning into a rectum while the original rearend is growing into a new mouth,” Sim said at the centre yesterday.

Cemacs scientists will now try to propagate the Golden Sea Cucum­bers (Stichopus fusiformiossa) using the three specimens.

But to save them from the brink of extinction and protect the 10km coral reef range, the scientists are preparing vital data to convince the Kedah government to gazette the reef into a marine protected area.

One of the Golden Sea Cucumbers from Songsong islands moving in the holding tank of the Centre of Marine and Coastal Studies in Muka Head, Teluk Bahang. Pix by: ZHAFARAN NASIB/The Star/ 2 October 2017
The sea cucumber in its original state at Cemacs in Muka Head, Teluk Bahang.

Although the islands are unpopulated, the scientists were dismayed when they reached Songsong Islands on Sept 27.

They found the islands surrounded by a toxic red tide or harmful algae bloom, usually caused by heavy human pollution.

“We deduced that the bloom is caused by fertiliser from Kedah’s padi fields,” said Dr Zulfigar.

With heavy rain, tonnes of ferti­liser will dissolve and flow into the sea via Sungai Merbok and Sungai Muda estuaries, 16km from Song­song Islands.

“Freshwater is lighter than seawater, so the fertiliser won’t mix until it has flowed farther out.

“These islands are just the right distance from the river mouths for the nutrients to mix with the seawater and create the red tide,” he said.

In spite of the danger, the scientists discovered that the coral reef has struck an unusual symbiotic friendship with the algae and ma­­naged to thrive – for the time being.

Marine biologist and Cemacs director Prof Datuk Dr Aileen Tan called it a “miracle”.

“The acclimatisation is a rare phenomenon and responsible for keeping the fisheries resources of Kedah vibrant,” said Dr Tan.

Marine Parks Department director-general Datuk Dr Sukarno Wagi­man said plans are underway to gazette three of the islands – Pulau Songsong, Pulau Bidan and Pulau Telor – and a rocky outcrop called Tukun Terendak into a marine park.

“We have sent a proposal to the Kedah government, which supports the move. Possibly, a radius of one nautical mile around the area will be a no-take zone while the second nautical mile radius will be a ma­­naged zone.

“We must now develop a public education programme for stakeholders, especially fishermen, to see the value of protecting the islands,” said Dr Sukarno, who attended the closing ceremony of the expedition in Cemacs.

Titled H2O (Highland to Ocean), the expedition was funded by the department and involved 20 ma­rine-based and 30 land-based scientists from nine government agencies who documented the species’ richness and ecosystems of Gunung Jerai and Songsong Islands since Sunday.

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