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UM Congresses

The tri-annual Unitas meeting: past and future, where and when.

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World Congress of Malacologists

11-16 July 2004, Perth, Western Australia

Three hundred molluscan researchers from thirty-eight different countries recently came together at The University of Western Australia campus, on the picturesque Swan River, for the World Congress of Malacology. This is the first time the Congress has been held in the southern hemisphere and it is a credit to the hard working organizing committees, of both past and present conferences, that so many people traveled such long distances to attend.

The icebreaker on Sunday evening, hosted by the Western Australian Museum, got the ball rolling with much good cheer, friendship, wine, food, lots of hugs and smiling faces, not necessarily in that order!

Come Monday morning we were keen and ready for science, and this time around the Congress theme was, Molluscan Megadiversity: Sea, Land and Freshwater. Four major symposia were held, Phylogeny of Molluscs, Molluscan Aquaculture & Fisheries, Ecology of Molluscs and Medical & Applied Molluscs. A variety of special symposium sessions were also conducted including: Bivalve Systematics, Reproduction and Development in Molluscs, Biology & Systematics of Opisthobranch Molluscs, Population Genetics in Mollusca and Pattern & Process in Land Mollusc Diversity.

The plenary speakers spanned at 11 different countries and covered a wide variety of topics, from fossils and evolutionary biology to environmental science and aquaculture. One of the conference highlights was the attendance of so many postgraduate students and there is no doubt that the future study of molluscs will remain in very capable hands once the G2 (those with grey and girth, according to some nameless participants) move on. Unitas Malacologica (The World Scientific Society for Molluscs) is to be highly commended for its willingness to commit approximately $Aus 35,000 for student travel, while the Malacological Society of London committed another $Aus 4,000. This tremendous support allowed considerable assistance to 30 of the 72 students in attendance.

The poster sessions were, as usual, well supported and very strategically placed in the lunch and tea venue to allow participants ample time to peruse the wide diversity of topics on offer. In addition, an excellent evening poster session was very well attended not just because of the research information on display but also because of the excellent Seashell Wines donated by vineyard founder and Australian marine shell specialist Dr Barry Wilson.

The “rest??” day, mid-conference included a variety of organized day tours to local sites of interest including; a dive trip to Rottnest Island (thank you Hugh Morrison of Perth Diving Academy), a land-based tour of Rottnest Island, a Swan Valley wine and chocolate tasting tour, and a koalas, kangaroos and sharks tour. Many people also explored on their own with visits to; the zoo, The Western Australian Museum, historic Fremantle and the amazing Kings Park botanical gardens.

Although a little chilly at times for those of us from tropical climes, the winter weather was very kind throughout the week with brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies each day.

The conference dinner was held at “Burswood on Swan” once again overlooked the beautiful Swan River. In fact at least one of the famous black swans paid us a visit during dinner, and was most upset at being refused entry. A few retired early, to catch aeroplanes but most danced passionately on into the night to the loud but excellent music. Some partied on to the Casino afterwards while others conserved their energy in anticipation of the early morning start for the much awaited post-conference field trip to the Abrolhos Islands.

After attending the Congress, thirteen molluscan research scientists departed Perth early on the morning of July 19th, 2004 for the beginning of their seven day field trip to the Abrolhos Islands, approximately 60 km off Geraldton along the Western Australian coastline.

In addition to their historical significance (famous shipwrecks and guano mining) the Houtman Abrolhos Islands and their surrounding marine communities form one of Western Australia's most unique marine habitats. They consist of 122 tiny islands that are clustered into three groups, Wallabi to the north, Easter centrally and Pelsaert to the south.

On route to Rat Island, in the Easter Group, the boat trippers were treated to calm seas and whale watching while those lucky enough go by air experienced clear skies and arial views of the reef systems generally found only in tourist brochures.

The trip, and its associated activities, certainly provided the group with a unique experience. It began with a substantial cross-cultural exchange that included seven different countries and a wide variety of interests and experience. The week was also particularly educational as only two of the seventeen of us, staying at the Saville Kent Research Station, had previously been to the Abrolhos Islands.

Rat Island, on which the research facility is built, forms an important part of Western Australia's most valuable fishery - western rock lobster. However, it was “out of season” and not one of the residents that flock to the island from March to June each year was there to greet us - quite an eerie experience to see all the silent but colorful empty dwellings.

Several days of diving then followed, with the Leeuwin Current providing us with pleasant water temperatures of around 20-22&Mac176;C, pretty good for winter! The unique coral reef formations are a meeting place for both tropical and temperate sea life. The islands also have a large number of species that are endemic to Western Australia, including the western rock lobster. So while most of the participants enjoyed the diversity of corals, a particular treat for those of us from tropical climes, were the friendly and curious sea lions. Those with an interest in birds were also well catered for, as more than 90 species of seabird have been identified throughout the islands, including several large breeding colonies.

The support of WA Fisheries was huge and the willingness of the Fisheries boat crew to assist the wayward molluscan scientists (who didn't even appreciate sighting a good eating fish!) was sincerely appreciated. In addition, the learning experience was also considerably deepened by the unexpected presence of a video-production unit from Perth who filmed us continuously during the entire trip. Definitely a crash course in media skills and the very fast development of the ability to repeat things several times without looking at the camera!

To Fred Wells, Corey Whisson and Jacqui Wells from the Western Australian Museum our very sincere thanks for being willing to share such a unique marine environment with us. Not only did they organize the trip but also they unselfishly did so immediately after running the international conference.

Others conference participants conducted their own field programs at a wide variety of sites in Western Australia, ranging from Esperance in the southeast of the State to Broome in the Kimberley. Shark Bay was a focus point for many of the people. A few even ventured as far as Darwin, Sydney and Queensland.

I would definitely recommend Western Australia, and its venues, to anyone planning a national or international conference, workshop or much-deserved holiday.

Gilianne Brodie
James Cook University