People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

Menu Image Menu Image Menu Image Menu Image Menu Image Menu Image Menu Image
Facebook Twitter YouTube FlickR

A new study published online today in Nature shows that corals on the northern Great Barrier Reef experienced a catastrophic die-off following the extended marine heatwave of 2016.

“When corals bleach from a heatwave, they can either survive and regain their colour slowly as the temperature drops, or they can die. Averaged across the whole Great Barrier Reef, we lost 30 per cent of the corals in the nine month period between March and November 2016,” said Prof Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE).

The scientists mapped the geographical pattern of heat exposure from satellites, and measured coral survival along the 2,300-km length of the Great Barrier Reef following the extreme marine heatwave of 2016.

The amount of coral death they measured was closely linked to the amount of bleaching and level of heat exposure, with the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef being the most severely affected. The study found that 29 per cent of the 3,863 reefs comprising the world’s largest reef system lost two-thirds or more of their corals, transforming the ability of these reefs to sustain full ecological functioning.

“The coral die-off has caused radical changes in the mix of coral species on hundreds of individual reefs, where mature and diverse reef communities are being transformed into more degraded systems, with just a few tough species remaining,” said co-author Prof Andrew Baird of Coral CoE at James Cook University.

“As part of a global heat and coral bleaching event spanning 2014-2017, the Great Barrier Reef experienced severe heat stress and bleaching again in 2017, this time affecting the central region of the Great Barrier Reef,” said co-author Dr Mark Eakin of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We’re now at a point where we’ve lost close to half of the corals in shallow-water habitats across the northern two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef due to back-to-back bleaching over two consecutive years,” said Prof Sean Connolly of Coral CoE at James Cook University.

“But, that still leaves a billion or so corals alive, and on average, they are tougher than the ones that died. We need to focus urgently on protecting the glass that’s still half full, by helping these survivors to recover,” said Prof Hughes.

The scientists say these findings reinforce the need for assessing the risk of a wide-scale collapse of reef ecosystems, especially if global action on climate change fails to limit warming to 1.5‒2 °C above pre-industrial levels.

The study is unique because it tests the emerging framework for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems, which seeks to classify vulnerable ecosystems as ‘safe,’ ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered.’

“The Great Barrier Reef is certainly threatened by climate change, but it is not doomed if we deal very quickly with greenhouse gas emissions. Our study shows that coral reefs are already shifting radically in response to unprecedented heatwaves,” said Prof Hughes.

The researchers warn that failure to curb climate change, causing global temperatures to rise far above 2 °C, will radically alter tropical reef ecosystems and undermine the benefits they provide to hundreds of millions of people, mostly in poor, rapidly-developing countries.”


Hughes, T.P., Kerry, J.T., Baird, A.H.,Connolly, S.R., Dietzel, A., Eakin, C.M., Heron, S.F., Hoey, A.S., Hoogenboom, M.O., Liu, G., McWilliam, M.J., Pears, R., Pratchett, M.S., Skirving, W.J., Stella, J.S. and Torda, G. (2018) Global warming transforms coral reef assemblages. Nature  doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0041-2



Link to video and images here. Please credit as marked.


Prof Terry Hughes
Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0) 400 720 164 (AEST/UTC +10)
E-mail: terry.hughes@jcu.edu.au

Prof Sean Connolly
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Phone: +61 (0)7 4781 4242 (AEST/UTC +10)
Email: sean.connolly@jcu.edu.au

Prof Andrew Baird
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Phone: +61 (0) 400 289 770 (AEST/UTC +10)
Email: andrew.baird@jcu.edu.au

C. Mark Eakin, Ph. D.
U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
College Park, MD U.S.A.
Phone: +1 (301) 502 8608 (EST/UTC -5)
Email: mark.eakin@noaa.gov


Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Phone: +61 (0)7 4781 6067, +61 (0) 428 785 895 (AEST/UTC +10)
Email: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

New research reveals that global warming also affects fish who depend on corals.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is revered for its kaleidoscope of colour. New international research led by PhD student Laura Richardson of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University reveals that coral bleaching events not only whitewash corals, but can also reduce the variety of fish occupying these highly-valued ecosystems.

The study was conducted by researchers at James Cook University and Lancaster University, U.K., who examined 16 reefs off Lizard Island, in the northern section of the GBR. The quantity and types of coral and fish species were surveyed before, during and after the 2016 mass bleaching event caused by a global heatwave.

“The widespread impacts of heat stress on corals have been the subject of much discussion both within and outside the research community. We are learning that some corals are more sensitive to heat-stress than others, but reef fishes also vary in their response to these disturbances,” said lead author Ms Richardson.

“Fish assemblages are significantly impacted by loss of coral cover as a result of bleaching events, and some fishes are more sensitive than others,” said co-author Prof Nick Graham of Lancaster University.

The loss of corals affected some types of fish more than others. Following the bleaching event, researchers recorded a sharp drop in the diversity of fish communities as the mix or species changed.

Fish that are highly dependent on branching corals, such as butterflyfish, declined the most.

“Prior to the 2016 mass bleaching event, we observed significant variation in the number of fish species, total fish abundance and functional diversity among different fish communities. Six months after the bleaching event, however, this variation was almost entirely lost,” said co-author Dr Andrew Hoey of ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

“Also known as ‘biotic homogenisation,’ this tendency towards individual and community similarity is increasingly considered one of the most pressing, but largely unrecognised, biodiversity crises faced globally.”

Paper: Richardson, L. E., Graham, N.A.J., Pratchett, M.S., Eurich, J.G., and Hoey, A.S. (2018), Mass coral bleaching causes biotic homogenization of reef fish assemblages. Global Change Biology,  doi:10.1111/gcb.14119

Link to video and images here. Please credit as marked.

Contacts for interviews:


Dr Andrew Hoey
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
P: +61 7 4781 5979 (AEST/UTC +10)
E: andrew.hoey@jcu.edu.au


Ms Laura Richardson
Exeter University
M: +44 (0) 7384 634580 (GMT/UTC)
E: laura.richardson1@my.jcu.edu.au

Prof Nicholas Graham
Lancaster University, Lancaster Environment Centre
M: +44 (0) 7479 438 914 (GMT/UTC)
E: nick.graham@lancaster.ac.uk

For more information:

Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Tel: +61 (0)7 4781 6067
M: +61 (0) 428 785 895 (AEST/UTC +10)
E: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

Coral reefs can naturally protect coasts from tropical cyclones by reducing the impact of large waves before they reach the shore, according to scientists.

Tropical cyclones wreak havoc on coastal infrastructure, marine habitats and coastal populations across the world. However, Dr. Michael Cuttler, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at The University of Western Australia (UWA), says that for coastlines facing a direct cyclone impact, a fringing reef can protect the beach from extensive erosion.

“Reefs can effectively protect shorelines because of their ability to cause waves to break offshore, thus limiting the energy impacting the coastline,” he said.

Dr. Cuttler and several of his Coral CoE colleagues studied Ningaloo Reef – Australia’s largest fringing reef system, and a UN World Heritage site – during Tropical Cyclone Olwyn in 2015. Olwyn was a Category 3 severe tropical cyclone that caused extensive damage along the coast of Western Australia.

The team observed that the shoreline remained largely unscathed because of the protection provided by its offshore reef.

“The large waves generated by the cyclone were effectively dissipated by the reef situated offshore,” Dr. Cuttler explained.

“The little erosion that did occur was due to smaller waves that were generated by wind within the lagoon.”

The shape, or geomorphology, of the reef – with its steep forereef slope, shallow reef crest and reef flat, and relatively shallow lagoon – is representative of most fringing reefs worldwide.

“In this study, we also compared similar cyclone impacts on coastlines without reefs and found that these beaches were eroded up to ten times more than the beach at Ningaloo,” Dr. Cuttler said.

While the findings of Dr. Cuttler’s study indicated that coral reefs can effectively protect coastlines from tropical cyclones and other large wave impacts, it also suggested that for reef systems with lagoons, local wind effects cannot be ignored when attempting to model or predict the impact of cyclones.

He also warned that the ability of reefs to protect adjacent coastlines was threatened by both sea level rise and slowing rates of reef accretion.

“These changes may ultimately increase the amount of wave energy reaching the coastline and potentially enhance coastal erosion,” he said.

Few studies before have measured the hydrodynamic conditions and morphological responses of such a coastline in the presence of a tropical cyclone.

Dr. Cuttler and his Coral CoE colleagues found the results could be used to assess coastal hazards facing reef-fringed coastlines due to extreme tropical cyclone conditions, and would become increasingly relevant as climate change alters the status of coral reefs globally.

Paper:  Cuttler, M. V., Hansen, J. E., Lowe, R. J. and Drost, E. J. (2018), Response of a fringing reef coastline to the direct impact of a tropical cyclone. Limnol. Oceanogr., 3: 31-38. doi:10.1002/lol2.10067




Dr. Michael Cuttler
Coral CoE at UWA
E: michael.cuttler@uwa.edu.au



Jess Reid
UWA/Media and Public Relations Advisor
P: +61 (0) 8 6488 6876 (AWST/UTC +8)
E:  jess.reid@uwa.edu.au

Catherine Naum
Coral CoE/Communications Manager
P: +61 (0) 7 4781 6067 (AEST/UTC +10)
M: +61 (0) 428 785 895
E: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

Scientists have found that high carbon dioxide levels cause squid to bungle attacks on their prey.

PhD candidate Blake Spady from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University (JCU) led the investigation. He said that the oceans absorb more than one-quarter of all the excess carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere by humans and this uptake of additional CO2 causes seawater to become more acidic.

“Climate models project that unless there is a serious commitment to reducing emissions, CO2 levels will continue increasing this century to reach levels that will have far-reaching effects on sea life,” he said.

Mr Spady said the team chose to study cephalopods (a group that includes squid, cuttlefish and octopuses) because while most previous behavioural studies have focused on fishes, the effects of elevated CO2 on highly active invertebrates is largely unknown.

“Cephalopods also prey on just about anything they can wrap their arms around and are themselves preyed upon by a wide range of predator species, so they occupy an important place within marine food webs.”

The scientists tested the effects of elevated CO2 on the hunting behaviours of pygmy squid and bigfin reef squid.

“For pygmy squid, there was a 20% decrease in the proportion of squid that attacked their prey after exposure to elevated CO2 levels. They were also slower to attack, attacked from further away, and often chose more conspicuous body pattern displays at elevated CO2 conditions.

Bigfin reef squid showed no difference in the proportion of individuals that attacked prey, but, like the pygmy squid, they were slower to attack and used different body patterns more often.”

Mr Spady said both species showed increased activity at elevated CO2 conditions when they weren’t hunting, which suggests that they could also be adversely altering their ‘energy budgets’.

“Overall, we found similar behavioural effects of elevated CO2 on two separate cephalopod orders that occupy largely distinct niches. This means a variety of cephalopods may be adversely affected by rising CO2 in the oceans, and that could have significant consequences in marine ecosystems,” said co-author Dr Sue-Ann Watson.

“However, because squid have short lifespans, large populations, and a high rate of population increase, they may have the potential to adapt to rapid changes in the physical environment,” Mr Spady added.

“The fast lifestyle of squid could mean they are more likely to adapt to future ocean conditions than some other marine species, and this is the next question we intend to investigate.”

Paper: Spady, BL, Munday, PL, Watson, S-A (2018) published Predatory strategies and behaviours in cephalopods are altered by elevated CO2 in Global Change Biology doi: 10.1111/gcb.14098

Images: for media use can be found here. Please credit as marked.


Blake Spady
PhD candidate at Coral CoE/ JCU
Phone: +61 456 777 883
Email: blake.spady@my.jcu.edu.au

Dr. Sue-Ann Watson
Senior Research Fellow, Coral CoE
Phone: +61 7 4781 5270

Prof. Philip Munday
Reef Research Leader, Coral CoE
Phone: +61 7 47815341

Melissa Lyne
Acting Communications Manager, Coral CoE
Phone: +61 415 514 328
Email: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au



New research has revealed the tiny minority of fishers who poach on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) think the illegal practice is justified, because they believe “everyone else is doing it.”

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University asked nearly 700 recreational fishers at boat ramps in Townsville about their perceptions of poaching (i.e. fishing in no-take zones).

PhD candidate Brock Bergseth led the study, and said the results were overwhelmingly encouraging.

“97 per cent of fishers thought poaching was personally unacceptable, and most supported enforcement of the rules. But a small number did not.”

Mr Bergseth said the 21 self-admitted poachers thought poaching occurred much more often, than did non-poachers.

“People involved in illicit activities such as illegal drug use and drink driving are more prone to overestimate the prevalence of their behaviour in society. This ‘false consensus effect’ often allows offenders to justify their actions – they think it’s ok because ‘everyone else is doing it.’ Our data suggest that this effect may also be occurring among poachers in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP).”

He said it was a dangerous trend, because fishers who know poachers can also be ‘contaminated’ if they begin to think the bad behavior is widespread.

“People who know a poacher have significantly higher estimates of the level of poaching compared to fishers that don’t know poachers. This implies that these fishers believe that poaching is more common than fishers who do not associate with poachers.”

Mr Bergseth said 13 per cent of fishers reported knowing someone who had poached within the past 12 months.

“In all, this study showed how numerous misperceptions are probably supporting the continuation of poaching on the GBR. If left unchecked, these misperceptions could lead to a cascading effect that encourages further poaching.”

Mr Bergseth said the research pointed to a way of addressing the problem.

“There are three specific messages that could be communicated to poachers. First, that nearly every recreational fisher thinks that poaching is socially and morally unacceptable. Secondly, it is really important for everyone to know that almost all recreational fishers follow the rules – poachers are just a small minority that people don’t respect. And lastly, the likelihood of getting detected while poaching is high, as are the consequences – the fine for poaching in a no-take zone is $2100.”

Link to paper here.

Link to images here.


Brock Bergseth
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU
M: +61 (0) 415 655 551 (AEST/UTC +10)
E: brock.bergseth@my.jcu.edu.au

Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
M: +61 (0) 428 785 895 (AEST/UTC +10)
E: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au


Data gathered from the research

The average fisher in the GBRMP:

Is male and spends about 34 days a year fishing.

Makes $90–135,000 AUD, and has a tertiary education.

Most (73%) fishers said fishing was the most important activity that they undertook in the GBRMP, and most (78%) had previously been inspected by marine parks personnel.

57% believed that fishers they did not know had poached in the past 12 months.

A moderate level (16–21%) of fishers reported not caring about whether others would approve of them poaching.

An international team of scientists has developed a strategy to boost people’s ability to adapt to climate change, revealed in a new study published today in the prestigious journal, Nature Climate Change.

“Millions of coastal people in the tropics have been affected by the global coral bleaching event that unfolded over the previous two years. We need to find ways to help these people adapt to change,” said Professor Joshua Cinner from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

A group of social scientists from the USA, Australia, UK, and Chile, led by Prof. Cinner, have pooled their experience, and lessons from hundreds of research and development projects, to highlight five keys ways to build up the adaptive capacity of people living in the coastal tropics. These include:

1. Ensuring that people have the assets to draw upon in times of need. These assets can include household wealth or public goods such as health services, but they need to be developed in ways that don’t exacerbate existing inequalities;
2. Providing the flexibility to change. “Having some flexibility can enable people to minimise losses or even take advantage of climate-related change,” said Prof. Eddie Allison from the University of Washington, USA. “For example, fishers might need to change fishing grounds or target new species.”
3. Learning about climate change and adaptation options. “People need to learn about new techniques and strategies that can help them cope with changing circumstances,” said Prof. Katrina Brown at the University of Exeter, UK.
4. Investing in social relationships. “The formal and informal relationships that people have with each other and their communities can help them deal with change by providing social support and access to both knowledge and resources,” said Prof. Cinner.
5. Empowering people to have a say in what happens to them. “We also need to ensure that people have the ability to determine what is right for them,” said Prof. Brown.

The paper “Building adaptive capacity to climate change in tropical coastal communities,” will be published in the February 1 issue of Nature Climate Change, and is available online today.

Link to video and images here. Please credit as marked.


Australia: Prof. Josh Cinner.
E: Joshua.cinner@jcu.edu.au
M: +61(0)417714138

UK: Prof. Katrina Brown.
E: Katrina.Brown@exeter.ac.uk

North America (USA): Prof. Eddie Allison.
E: eha1@uw.edu
M: +1 206 859 3438 (mobile)

Latin America (Chile): Dr. Stefan Gelcich
E: sgelcich@bio.puc.cl
P: +569 9577 8574

For more information:

Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
P: +61 (0)7 4781 6067
M: +61 (0) 428 785 895 (AEST/UTC +10)
E: Catherine.Naum1@jcu.edu.au

An international team led by a JCU scientist has found that contact with plastic waste massively increases the chance of disease in corals.

Dr Joleah Lamb, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at JCU, led the study reported in the journal Science this week.

“We examined more than 120,000 corals, both plastic-free and with plastic present, on 159 reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand. We found that the chance of disease increased from 4% to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic,” said Dr Lamb.

She said very few studies have examined the role plastics could play in promoting disease in the marine environment.

“We don’t know the exact mechanisms, but plastics make ideal vessels for colonizing microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals,” Dr Lamb said.

“For example, plastic items such as those commonly made of polypropylene, like bottle caps and toothbrushes, have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria that are associated with a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.”

Dr Lamb said the problem of plastic waste looks to be getting worse.

“We estimate there are 11.1 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific and forecast this to increase by 40% within seven years. That equates to an estimated 15.7 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific by 2025,” she said.

JCU’s Emeritus Professor Bette Willis said the finding adds to the burden of climate-related disease outbreaks that have already had an impact on coral reefs globally.

“Bleaching events are projected to increase in frequency and severity as ocean temperatures rise. There’s more than 275 million people relying upon coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural significance. So moderating disease outbreak risks in the ocean will be vital for improving both human and ecosystem health.”



Dr Joleah Lamb
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/ Cornell University
E: joleah.lamb@cornell.edu

Dr Lamb is currently in Brisbane (AEST/UTC +10).

Emeritus Professor Bette Willis
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/ James Cook University
E: bette.willis@jcu.edu.au

Professor Willis is currently in Townsville (AEST/UTC +10).


Link to video and images here. Please credit as marked.

Link to Science publication here.


For More Information:

Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
P: +61 (0)7 4781 6067
M: +61 (0) 428 785 895 (AEST/UTC +10)
E: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

Blaine Friedlander
Senior Science Editor
Cornell University
P: 607-254-8093 (EST/UTC -5)
E: bpf2@cornell.edu


The world’s reefs are under siege from global warming, according to a novel study published today in the prestigious journal Science.

For the first time, an international team of researchers has measured the escalating rate of coral bleaching at locations throughout the tropics over the past four decades. The study documents a dramatic shortening of the gap between pairs of bleaching events, threatening the future existence of these iconic ecosystems and the livelihoods of many millions of people.

“The time between bleaching events at each location has diminished five-fold in the past 3-4 decades, from once every 25-30 years in the early 1980s to an average of just once every six years since 2010,” says lead author Prof Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE).

“Before the 1980s, mass bleaching of corals was unheard of, even during strong El Niño conditions, but now repeated bouts of regional-scale bleaching and mass mortality of corals has become the new normal around the world as temperatures continue to rise.”

The study establishes a transition from a period before the 1980s when bleaching only occurred locally, to an intermediate stage in the 1980s and 1990s when mass bleaching was first recorded during warmer than average El Niño conditions, and finally to the current era when climate-driven bleaching is now occurring throughout ENSO  (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) cycles.

The researchers show that tropical sea temperatures are warmer today during cooler than average La Niña conditions than they were 40 years ago during El Niño periods.

“Coral bleaching is a stress response caused by exposure of coral reefs to elevated ocean temperatures. When bleaching is severe and prolonged, many of the corals die. It takes at least a decade to replace even the fastest-growing species,” explained co-author Prof Andrew Baird of Coral CoE.

“Reefs have entered a distinctive human-dominated era – the Anthropocene,” said co-author, Dr C. Mark Eakin of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, USA. “The climate has warmed rapidly in the past 50 years, first making El Niños dangerous for corals, and now we’re seeing the emergence of bleaching in every hot summer.”

“For example, the Great Barrier Reef has now bleached four times since 1998, including for the first time during back-to-back events in 2016 and 2017, causing unprecedented damage,” explained Prof Hughes. “Yet the Australian government continues to support fossil fuels.”

“We hope our stark results will help spur on the stronger action needed to reduce greenhouse gases in Australia, the United States and elsewhere,” says Prof Hughes.

The paper “Spatial and temporal patterns of mass bleaching of corals in the Anthropocene” is now available here.


Images must carry credits as listed in Dropbox folder:


Prof Andrew Baird
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Phone: +61 (0) 400 289 770 (currently in Sydney, AEDT/UTC +11)
Email: Andrew.Baird@jcu.edu.au

Associate Professor Julia Baum
University of Victoria, Department of Biology
Victoria, BC CANADA
Phone: 1-250-858-9349 (PST/UTC -8)
Email: baum@uvic.ca

Associate Professor Michael Berumen
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Red Sea Research Center
Phone: +966 544 700 019 (available from 3-4 Jan, MSK/UTC + 3; 5-7 Jan, CET/UTC + 1)
Email: michael.berumen@kaust.edu.sa

C. Mark Eakin, Ph. D.
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
Silver Spring, MD U.S.A.
Phone: 1-301-502-8608  (EST/UTC -5)
Email: mark.eakin@noaa.gov

Prof Nicholas Graham
Lancaster University, Lancaster Environment Centre
Tel: +44 (0) 7479 438 914 (available from 4 Jan, GMT/UTC)
Email: nick.graham@lancaster.ac.uk

Prof Terry Hughes
Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0) 400 720 164 (NZDT/UTC +13)
Email: Terry.Hughes@jcu.edu.au


Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Phone: +61 (0)7 4781 6067, +61 (0) 428 785 895 (AEST/UTC +10)
Email: Catherine.Naum1@jcu.edu.au

A new book exploring the best scientific research on preventing coral-eating Crown-Of-Thorns Starfish (COTS) outbreaks, is expected to become a critical resource for informing management of these outbreaks across the Indo-Pacific.

The book “Biology, Ecology and Management of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish” is the latest authoritative work across 30 years of COTS research. Comprised of 18 new research papers and reviews, the book highlights both significant scientific advances and emerging opportunities for targeted research.

World-renowned experts, Professor Morgan Pratchett of ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University and Dr Sven Uthicke of the Australian Institute of Marine Science are the co-editors of the special edition, open access book.

Prof Pratchett’s research over the past two decades has contributed significantly to understanding the causes and consequences of outbreaks.

He describes COTS outbreaks as `akin to locusts’ and said there was still much to learn.

“Outbreaks occur on many reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific, including the Great Barrier Reef, and contribute to the widespread degradation of these valuable ecosystems,” Prof Pratchett said.

“Despite significant research on the biology and ecology of COTS, there are still some considerable knowledge gaps and opportunities for important discoveries.

“More than a thousand research papers have been written about these animals, reflecting the ecological impact and management concern surrounding COTS outbreaks.”

Dr Uthicke, a biologist and geneticist, is focussed on the development of new genetic tools (eDNA) to gain insights into the early life-history of COTS.

He said researchers needed to embrace new technologies and opportunities to advance our understanding of COTS biology and behaviour.

“We must focus on key questions that will improve management effectiveness in reducing the frequency and likelihood of outbreaks, if not preventing them altogether,” Dr Uthicke said.

“There is still a lot we do not know about these starfish and effective management is conditional upon improved knowledge of their biology, especially during the very early life stages, when the starfish are extremely small and very cryptic.”

The Special Issue “Biology, Ecology and Management of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish” is published in the journal Diversity and now available open access with MDPI books.

Please note, images must carry credits as listed in Dropbox folder here.

Media Enquiries

Prof Morgan Pratchett
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University
Phone: +44 7400 850 767 (GMT +1), overseas from 22 December to 9 January
Email: morgan.pratchett@jcu.edu.au

Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University
Phone: +61 0428 785 895 or +61 07 4781 6067 (GMT +10)
Email: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

New research suggests an urgent need to find out why sea snakes are disappearing from known habitats, after it was discovered some seemingly identical sea snake populations are actually genetically distinct from each other and can’t simply repopulate if one group dies out.

Lead author, Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University collected genetic samples from more than 550 sea snakes around Australia.

She said scientists were previously unaware of how genetically different sea snake populations on the Western Australian coast were from populations on reefs in the Timor Sea, Gulf of Carpentaria and the Great Barrier Reef.

“The previously unappreciated genetic distinctiveness in coastal Western Australia is critically important. It means that this region is home to genetic diversity not found elsewhere in Australia. If those populations die out, then that biodiversity and potential for adaptation is lost forever,” said Dr Lukoschek.

“Also, genetic differences of sea snakes between reefs around Australia mean that if a species disappears from a particular reef, they are unlikely to be replenished by dispersal of juveniles or adults from adjacent reefs.”

Dr Lukoschek said the sudden disappearance of sea snakes on the highly-protected Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea remained unexplained, as were sea snake declines on protected reefs in New Caledonia and the southern Great Barrier Reef.

“We observed none of the obvious threats, such as changes in the habitat or fishing, so we are left with a list of other possible causes including disease, invasive species, pollution, seismic surveys or recruitment failure.”

Dr Lukoschek said targeted research on habitat and diet requirements, reproductive biology, disease susceptibility and the impacts of man-made processes, is crucial.

“It’s important we investigate sea snakes in particular, as traditional conservation actions that focus on tackling common causes of species decline, such as habitat loss, may not optimise the conservation of genetic divergence and diversity in these vulnerable populations,” she said.

Dr Lukoschek said conservation planners should incorporate genetic information, including identifying and prioritising evolutionary significant lineages, into their work.

“In the meantime, the findings suggest it is imperative to reduce stressors to coastal WA habitats including minimising the impacts of trawling and reducing the numerous anthropogenic impacts on the environment,” Dr Lukoschek concluded.

The paper “Congruent phylogeographic patterns in a young radiation of live-bearing marine snakes: Pleistocene vicariance and the conservation implications of cryptic genetic diversity” is published today in the journal Diversity and Distributions.


Images are available here. Please caption and credit as marked.


Media Contact:

Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek
E: vimoksalehi.lukoschek@jcu.edu.au
P: +61 (0) 410 340 609 (GMT +10)

For More Information:

Ms Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
E: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au
P: +61 (0)7 4781 6067 / +61 (0) 428 785 895 (GMT +10)

Scientists typically make every effort to keep all factors but one constant when doing an experiment. Global-change scientists might move a coral from a reef to an aquarium whose water is held 1°C higher to test the effects of the ocean warming predicted for the end of the century. Or they might decrease the water’s pH by 0.4 units to study the effects of ocean acidification.

But a new review article presents evidence that argues for a more nuanced approach to the design of these experiments–one that acknowledges and purposefully incorporates the variability inherent in nature.

The article, in the latest issue of Current Climate Change Reports, focuses on studies examining how ocean warming and acidification might affect corals and coralline algae. Lead author Emily Rivest of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) says its findings are also likely applicable to other foundational reef species such as oysters.

“The range of pH and temperature that some organisms experience on a daily basis exceeds the changes we expect to see in the global ocean by the end of the century,” notes Rivest, an assistant professor at VIMS. “But we don’t really know how this variability affects their physiology and their ability to respond to future change. The papers we reviewed suggest this variability is important, and we need to incorporate it into our experiments.”

Indeed, there’s a growing consensus that the degree of variability in temperature and pH an organism faces in its current environment will likely influence its response to future warming and acidification. For instance, a coral growing in a back-reef lagoon–whose restricted waters may warm drastically each afternoon under the blazing sun–may be less susceptible to long-term warming than a coral growing in the more open, temperate waters of the reef face. The same may hold true for entire species or populations of warmth-adapted corals.

In their paper, Rivest and co-authors Drs Steeve Comeau and Christopher Cornwall from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) and The University of Western Australia reviewed almost 100 studies of how predicted changes in ocean pH or temperature might affect coral growth. But their review found only a “handful” of the studies had purposefully varied these factors, or examined the importance of natural variability to the performance of reef organisms.

The experiments that incorporated variability fell into two categories. “One type was studies where you collect corals from a high-variability site and a low-variability site and see how they do under controlled laboratory conditions,” says Rivest. “If the variability is important in shaping their response to environmental change, then their response will depend on the site they are from.”

The second type “looked at the variability within laboratory treatments–taking corals into the lab and raising them under constant or variable conditions, then providing them with an additional stress and seeing if the variability they experienced in the lab influences their response to that stress.”

Rivest and her colleagues found that incorporating variability into an experiment’s design produced ambiguous and intriguing results.

“Corals from habitats with more temperature variability generally exhibit greater thermotolerance,” says Rivest, “but the effects of past pH variability are less clear.” On the other hand, she says, “In laboratory studies, pH variability often limited the effects of ocean acidification, but the effects of temperature variability on responses to warming were equivocal.”

Rivest, Comeau, and Cornwall say their findings warrant additional research. “We want our paper to signal the start of a new era in studies of how climate change affects foundation species,” says Rivest. “We really need to consider an animal’s current environment as a starting point for how it will respond in the future–we want this to be a point of discussion in our field, for how we should be designing experiments and thinking about these questions moving forward.”

The team says their findings could also lead to practical applications. “If we know better how environmental variability affects the ability of animals to tolerate future environmental change, then we can think about it in a restoration and conservation context,” says Rivest. “For example, if you target a reef for restoration, we could start a training program for corals where you culture them in the lab under variable conditions so they would be ready to perform well out in the reef environment.” This approach is already being applied at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and other research labs worldwide.

The paper “The Role of Natural Variability in Shaping the Response of Coral Reef Organisms to Climate Change” is now available online.



Mr David Malmquist
Communications Director
Virginia Institute of Marine Science, VA USA
E: davem@vims.edu
P: +1 804-684-7011

Dr Chris Cornwall
Research Fellow
University of Western Australia, Perth Australia
E: christopher.cornwall@uwa.edu.au
P: +61 (0) 8 6488 3644

Researchers from The University of Western Australia (UWA), ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE), and Western Australian Marine Science Institution have examined the impact of the 2016 mass bleaching event on reefs in Western Australia (WA). They found significant bleaching occurred in the inshore Kimberley region, despite Kimberley corals being known as exceptionally stress resistant. They also found mild bleaching at Rottnest Island and that the Ningaloo Reef escaped bleaching.

The 2016 mass bleaching event is the most severe global bleaching event to ever be recorded.

Coral bleaching occurs as the result of abnormal environmental conditions, such as heightened sea temperatures that cause corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae, called ‘zooxanthellae.’ The loss of these colourful algae causes the corals to turn white, and ‘bleach’. Bleached corals can recover if the temperature drops and zooxanthellae are able to recolonise the coral, otherwise the coral may die.

The researchers, led by Coral CoE’s Dr Verena Schoepf and UWA Masters student Morane Le Nohaïc, conducted surveys on the health of coral reefs along the Western Australian coastline from tropical to temperate locations.

“We found a concerning 57 to 80 per cent of corals on inshore Kimberley reefs were bleached in April 2016 – this included Montgomery Reef, Australia’s largest inshore reef,” Dr Schoepf said.

“Our research also found that there was mild bleaching at Rottnest Island – 29 per cent of corals were moderately bleached.”

“Ningaloo Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, escaped bleaching, but had some temperature-unrelated coral mortality. Temperate corals at Bremer Bay (Southwest) experienced no bleaching.”

Dr Schoepf said bleaching patterns were consistent with patterns of heat stress across WA.

“This is the first documented regional-scale bleaching event in WA during an El Nino year and the first time we have been able to measure the percentage of impacted corals in 2016,” she said.

“Coral reefs in WA are now at risk of bleaching during both El Nino years, such as in 2016, and La Nina years, such as 2010/11. But the geographic footprint differs – the northwest is at risk during El Nino years, whereas Ningaloo Reef and reefs further south are at risk during the La Nina cycle.”

“As bleaching events become more common in the future, it is critical to monitor how bleaching events impact coral reef resilience, and how long it takes reefs to recover from such catastrophic events.”

The research paper “Marine heatwave causes unprecedented regional mass bleaching of thermally resistant corals in northwestern Australia” is published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

Images must carry credits as listed in Dropbox folder:


Dr Verena Schoepf
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at University of Western Australia
Phone: (+61 8) 6488 4596 / (+61 4) 16 540 415
Email: verena.schoepf@uwa.edu.au

Ms Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: (+61 7) 4781 6067 / (+61 4) 28 785 895
Email: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

Marine scientists at The University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute and the ARC Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies have shown that local human activities negatively influence coral reef ecosystems in a series of complex interactions, some of which are poorly understood by science.

A detailed underwater study was undertaken at 26 sites across the Maldives, south-west of India, as part of a XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

The scientists investigated coral reef communities adjacent to human populations ranging from zero to more than 150,000 people.

PhD candidate Kristen Brown said although marine scientists already knew human activity placed pressure on coastal reef systems, the extent to which these impacts were translated to impacts on coral reefs via changes to coral-algal competition had rarely been investigated.

“We’ve demonstrated that local human populations have a strong influence on coral reefs,” Ms Brown said.

“Many people believe that isolated reefs, near relatively small human populations, are healthier.

“Our study, however, noted a decline in certain categories of reef-building corals and an increase in dead coral and filamentous algae on reefs adjacent the densest human communities.

“Importantly, this study only provides a snapshot into the interactive dynamics of coral and algae, and seasonal and long-term investigations should be implemented.

“The results of our study have implications for the effects of human populations on coral reef communities, drawing attention to how these drivers influence reef processes such as coral-algal competition,” Ms Brown said.

Associate Professor Sophie Dove from the ARC Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at The University of Queensland said understanding these changes was becoming more and more important as global changes due to ocean warming and acidification increase.

“Understanding how these changes interact is going to be increasingly important especially as we see more frequent impacts like that of the mass coral bleaching across the Maldives in 2016,” Dr Dove said.

“This may help coral reef managers target their interventions with better outcomes.”

XL Catlin Seaview Survey Chief Scientist Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said the project had enabled some of the largest ecological measurements of reef health.

“Projects such as this will allow us to put down important baselines against which we can measure progress against goals,” he said.

The XL Catlin Seaview Survey began on the Great Barrier Reef in September 2012. Following successful Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea surveys, the project was rolled out globally thanks to the ongoing support of founding sponsor, global insurance group – XL Catlin Group Limited.

In 2014 the major campaign area was the waters of South-East Asia, while in 2015 the reefs of the Indian Ocean, including the Maldives, were surveyed. The team has recorded additional survey areas, including the Galapagos Islands, and temperate water locations including Monaco and Sydney.

Download the research paper cited above.


Kristen Brown, kristen.brown@uq.edu.au

Global Change Institute Communications, gcicomms@uq.edu.au +61 (0) 438 285 283

For nearly 50 years, researchers have been stumped as to why sea shells from warm tropical waters are comparatively larger than their cold water relatives. New research, led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University, suggests that it all comes down to ‘housing cost.’

Using an impressive data set spanning over 16,000 km, with sampling locations from the chilly Arctic waters off Svalbard, Norway to the balmy seas off Singapore, researchers found that sea snails and other calcifying marine molluscs, are frugal investors in their cost of housing and use less than 10% of their energy for shell growth.

Lead author, Dr Sue-Ann Watson of CoralCoE says, “We found the amount of energy devoted to shell-building is fairly low in marine molluscs. This discovery helps scientists better understand the pole-to-pole shell size trends we observe.”

“For example, our research suggests that cold water marine molluscs, in places like Antarctica, had to work a bit harder to build their shells, using more of their available energy,” she explains.

“To keep costs down, we found that cold water molluscs opt to maintain a more modest and affordable living space,” says Dr Watson.

To build their limestone (or calcium carbonate) shells, marine animals must obtain raw materials from seawater – a process known as ‘biomineralisation’. The availability of these key resources is influenced by temperature, making them more accessible and ‘cheaper’ in warmer waters.

“Our conclusions are based on an energy budget approach to understand the amount of energy invested into each of the organism’s vital functions,” says co-author, Professor Lloyd Peck of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), U.K.. “The results indicate that shell production cost is ‘smartly’ budgeted across climatic regions, and consistently occupies a small percentage of the overall energy budget.”

While shell cost is low in oceans today, the researchers suggest that changes to the availability of calcium carbonate materials for shell-building may increase this cost as a result of ocean acidification – a process caused by rising carbon dioxide levels.

“We also explored the consequences of increased calcium carbonate cost on the animals’ housing budget,” says Dr Watson.

“Using existing knowledge of likely changes in seawater chemistry, we calculated the increased cost of obtaining shell-building materials and found that future ocean conditions may raise the amount of energy animals need to make their shells. This could challenge shell investment strategies and alter energy budget balances, with negative implications for other survival needs in calcifying animals, especially those with large shells or skeletons.”

The findings of this research provide a baseline for future investigations into the cost of calcification in the world’s oceans, and how the effects of ocean acidification, as a result of climate change, could impact shell expenditure.

The paper “Latitudinal trends in shell production cost from the tropics to the poles” is published today in the journal Science Advances.



Please note, multimedia content must carry credits as listed in Dropbox folder: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/v9pw9bkof89g6gp/AAA_4y8EwmgYZtBB6eZfV-pea?dl=0



Dr Sue-Ann Watson

Coral CoE, James Cook University

M: +61 (0)7 4781 5270 (call forwards to mobile) (AEST/ UTC +10)

E: sueann.watson@jcu.edu.au


Prof Lloyd Peck

British Antarctic Survey

T: +44 (0)1223 221603 (GMT, 0 UTC)

M: +44 (0)7910 662194 (GMT, 0 UTC)

E: lspe@bas.ac.uk



Melissa Lyne

Communications, Coral CoE

M: +61 (0)415 514 328

E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Strategic delays in conservation efforts could be the key to protecting more species according to research led by the University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE).

The new study found instead of spending project funds immediately, conservation organisations could use the right amount of delay to improve the benefits achieved from their funding by focussing first on investment, capacity building, or monitoring and research.

UQ School of Biological Sciences and ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Gwen Iacona said the study used a mathematical model to look at conservation gains through identifying efficiencies.

“It showed that, because of the different rates of change in economic and ecological systems, waiting and using the time to improve the conservation capacity of the organisation provided better conservation outcomes than simply spending available money immediately,” Dr Iacona said.

“We tested this idea using data on forest restoration to counteract bird extinctions in Australia and Paraguay.

“We found that in both cases more species could be protected and extinctions could be halted faster when the available money for restoration was leveraged by investing it, before spending it on the on-the-ground projects.

“This result opens up a new dimension in conservation planning because it demonstrates that conservation gains can be obtained by looking for efficiencies in time and not just in space as has been the traditional strategy.”

Dr Iacona said every year, more species were being driven to extinction by the combined pressures of habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change.

These ongoing losses had created a crisis culture in conservation, where project funds were spent as soon as they were received.

The new research challenged this orthodox practice and demonstrated how strategic delays could improve efficiency.

“Waiting can allow agencies to leverage additional benefits from their funds through investment, capacity building, or monitoring and research,” she said.

“With the right amount of delay, limited conservation resources can protect more species and surprisingly they can even do so in less time.

“Our results suggest that, in addition to their current focus on where to target resources, conservation managers should carefully choose when to spend these funds.”

Co-researchers for the study are Professor Hugh Possingham, and Coral CoE researcher Dr Michael Bode.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (doi/10.1073/pnas.1702111114).


Dr Michael Bode, michael.bode@jcu.edu.au, +61 414 108 439 (AEST)

Prof Hugh Possingham, h.possingham@uq.edu.au, +61 434 079 061 (AEST)

Centuries-old nautical charts, mapped by long-deceased sailors to avoid shipwrecks, have been used by modern scientists to study loss of coral reefs.

A new US and Australian study – including research from The University of Queensland and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies –compared early British charts to modern coral habitat maps to understand changes to reef environments.

UQ’s Professor John Pandolfi said the study used information from surprisingly accurate 18th century nautical charts and satellite data to understand coral loss over more than two centuries in the Florida Keys.

“We found that some reefs had completely disappeared,” Professor Pandolfi said.

The study was led by Loren McClenachan, Assistant Professor at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, USA.

Professor McClenachan said more than half of the coral reef habitat mapped in the 1770s was no longer there. In some areas, particularly near land, coral loss was closer to 90 per cent.

“We found near the shore, entire sections of reef are gone, but in contrast, most coral mapped further from land is still coral reef habitat today,” she said.

This estimate of change over centuries added to modern observations of recent loss of living corals.

The marine scientists measured the loss of coral reef habitats across a large geographic area, while most studies look more closely at the loss of living coral from smaller sections of the reef.

“We found that reef used to exist in areas that today are not even classified as reef habitat anymore,” Professor Pandolfi said.

“When you add this to the 75 per cent loss of living coral in the Keys at that finer scale, the magnitude of change is much greater than anyone thought.”

This work was undertaken while Professor McClenachan was a visiting researcher in Professor Pandolfi’s lab at UQ’s School of Biological Sciences in Brisbane, Australia, while on sabbatical from Colby College.

The research revealed the precision of the early maps. Postdoctoral researcher at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine Dr Benjamin Neal said the early chart makers represented the “Silicon Valley of their time”.

“They had the best technology and they used it to create new information that conferred a lot of power,” Dr Neal said.

“The maps were essential to expansion of the British Empire, and luckily for us, they also included a lot of useful ecological information.”

Professor McClenachan said the findings had important conservation implications and pointed to a shifted spatial baseline.

“We tend to focus on known areas where we can measure change. That makes sense. Why would you look for coral where you never knew it was?” she said.

The authors said when large-scale changes like this were overlooked, scientists could lose sight of past abundance, lowering expectations for conservation and recovery.

The study, which also involved authors from Columbia University, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and the University of California San Diego, all in the U.S.,  is published in Science Advances (doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1603155)

Who cares about the Great Barrier Reef? Many people, and according to a paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, some of the most passionately connected  individuals can come from far away places, across the globe.

The study, led by Dr. Georgina Gurney of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University, involved interviews with more than 5,000 people from 40 countries and found that where you live, doesn’t necessarily determine what you care about.  In fact, the data suggests that people living near or far from the Reef can develop equally strong feelings of attachment to the large and iconic World Heritage site.

This is good news for the Reef. Blighted by bleaching, the Great Barrier Reef needs all the help it can get. The findings published today suggest that resource managers should draw on the support of the global community, not only locals living adjacent to the Reef, when engaging the public.

“It’s widely acknowledged that successful environmental management requires strong community engagement and support, but current approaches tend to only target locals. Our findings reveal that this view is too narrow,” says Dr Gurney.

For the many ecosystems that are increasingly affected by global-scale threats, such as climate change, these results are empowering.

“We need to look beyond our backyards for solutions to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Climate change, for example, is one of the biggest threats to the Reef and tackling it requires the support of the global community, not only those living close to the Reef.”

The study redefines the meaning of ‘community’ and, in doing so, identifies four new sub-communities, each with a different form of attachment to the Reef.

“Our study includes interviews with a diverse group of people – from fishers to international tourists. We found there are generally four types of communities who express ‘attachment’ for the Great Barrier Reef,” says co-author, Professor Neil Adger of the University of Exeter, U.K. “For example, we identified an ‘Armchair Enthusiast’ community. This group of individuals unexpectedly exhibits strong emotional bonds with the Reef, despite the fact that many live outside the Reef region and even outside of Australia.”

The authors say that the evidence suggests new types of bonds between people and iconic natural places are emerging that transcend traditional geographic boundaries. If targeted effectively, these bonds may be useful in building the transnational support required for successfully protecting the Reef.

“Modern-day problems, need modern-day solutions,” says co-author Dr Nadine Marshall of the Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO). “Addressing global-scale threats requires engaging people from all over the world who care about the Reef through modern communication channels, such as social media.”

“Our results show that declines in the Reef’s health may affect people across the globe. So, we suggest that resource managers consider the untapped potential of emerging transnational communities to build broad public support for protecting the Reef.”

The paper “Redefining community based on place attachment in a connected world” is now available online.

New research examining the possible impacts of ocean acidification provides fresh hope for the survival of reef fish.

Just as when a camera lens comes into focus, the latest research published today sharpens understanding of the implications of ocean acidification on reef fish behaviour, yielding promising results for their current and near-future survival.

Chemical changes in the ocean, as a result of climate change, are leading to a more acidic environment, referred to as ‘ocean acidification’ (OA). In a laboratory setting, these changes have been shown to lead to a range of risky behaviours in the affected fish, with some fish unable to flee from their finned foes effectively.

But, when researchers recalibrated experiments to adjust for natural daily changes in concentrations of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary chemical driver of OA, they found that the fish were less affected than previously thought.

“Shallow water habitats where reef fish live can experience substantial natural fluctuations in water chemistry throughout the day,” explained senior author Professor Philip Munday, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoralCoE) at James Cook University.

“For example, carbon dioxide levels on coral reefs are often much lower during the day than they are at night.

“Our data suggests that these natural daily changes in water chemistry are enough to provide fish with a recovery period, reducing their sensitivity to higher carbon dioxide levels,” said Michael D. Jarrold, lead author of the study and PhD student at James Cook University.

The study published today in Scientific Reports, utilised state-of-the-art facilities at James Cook University and at the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s National Sea Simulator (SeaSim) to mimic the natural conditions of a coral reef environment.

“It’s the first time these dynamic natural conditions have been reproduced in a laboratory setting to test  their potential influence on the behaviour of coral reef fish,” explained Mr. Jarrold.

“We are thrilled about what we’ve found,” he added. “Our results provide a greater level of optimism for reef fish populations in the future.”

Previous OA research has largely used stable, open ocean conditions to guide the experimental design.

“Broadly speaking, such studies reported reduced anti-predator responses, as compared with the control group,” said Prof Munday.

“Such abnormal behaviours were feared to pose significant ecological consequences for fish populations,” he explained.

The researchers’ ability to precisely control the complex combinations of environmental variables required to accurately simulate both naturally occurring and human-influenced water conditions was crucial to achieving this breakthrough.

“With the world’s most advanced experimental marine technology at our finger tips, and the considerable efforts of our specially skilled team, the SeaSim was able to recreate the natural daily CO2 cycles found on the reef,” said Craig Humphrey, co-author and SeaSim precinct manager at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

“We’re excited to play a part in such fantastic and novel research.”

The paper titled: “Diel CO2 cycles reduce severity of behavioural abnormalities in coral reef fish under ocean acidification” is available online at:




Images must carry credits as listed in Dropbox folder




Prof Philip Munday
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0) 0408 714 794, +61 (0)7 4781 5341 (AEST)
Email: philip.munday@jcu.edu.au

Mr Michael D. Jarrold
James Cook University
Email: michael.jarrold@my.jcu.edu.au



Ms Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0) 0428 785 895, +61 (0)7 4781 6067 (AEST)
Email: Catherine.Naum1@jcu.edu.au

Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University are set to study the impact of “yellow” conservation zones in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, examining how these ‘middle ground’ zones might help conserve fish stocks.

JCU’s Dr April Hall said while extensive research has been done on no-take (green) marine zones and open (blue) fishing zones, little work had been done on yellow zones which offer partial marine park protection.

“Yellow zones on the Great Barrier Reef act as a conservation ‘middle ground’, allowing limited fishing on reefs, whilst likely still gaining a conservation benefit, but little is known about their performance as a management tool,” she said.

Dr Hall and co-investigator Professor Mike Kingsford have been granted $180,000 to study the conservation zones. Dr Hall said the study will be the first to examine the effectiveness of yellow zones for conservation on the Great Barrier Reef.

The work will be performed in collaboration with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), James Cook University, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and is co-funded by a Queensland Department of Science, Information, Technology, and Innovation Advance Queensland Research Fellowship.

“We’ll be looking at how the biodiversity of fishes in yellow zones compares to protected (green) zones and open (blue) zones, and to what extent yellow zones contribute to reef conservation,” she said.

Dr Hall said a previous study she had taken part in suggested yellow zones provided some protection for predators targeted by recreational fishers such as coral trout, emperors, and snappers, though not as much as green zones.

“So yellow zones may play a role in protecting coral reef food webs, but we need to more accurately assess this.”

Dr Hall said this research will help inform reef managers as to the biological importance of yellow zones in current and future zoning of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Yellow zones have the potential to provide access to reef resources for fishers, whilst allowing a level of protection for reef biodiversity.”


James Cook University: Dr April Hall, 0458 565 194, april.hall@jcu.edu.au

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority: (07) 4750 0846 media@gbrmpa.gov.au


What is a Yellow Zone?

Fishing activities allowed in a Conservation Park (Yellow) Zone include:

Limited line fishing (one hand-held rod or one hand-held line per person, with no more than one hook attached to that line).
Trolling (no more than three lines per person and up to six hooks combined total per person).
Restriction on the number of commercial fishing vessels.
Limited spearfishing (snorkel only).
Bait netting.
Limited crabbing (four crab pots, collapsible traps or dillies).
Limited collecting (includes oysters and bait, excludes take of coral, live or dead and anemones).

For a description of the full range of zones and their restrictions, see here.

A recent discovery has uncovered that two species of damselfish can recognise their relatives by smell – and it’s all happening before any of them have even hatched.

Dr. Jen Atherton and Prof. Mark McCormick, both at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University, found that young damselfish imprint on the odours of their closely related kin whilst they are still only embryos.

“These fish can detect and recognise cues from their siblings quite early on in their development,” says Dr. Atherton, “They start to panic when they pick up the scent of an injured relative.”

Dr. Atherton adds that she discovered a highly sophisticated sense of smell: “The most amazing thing is, not only can the baby damselfish identify cues from other sibling fish with the same parents – they can differentiate between the fish of different parents, and also different species altogether,” she explains. “These fish are only about eight days old and haven’t even hatched yet!”

This capability may be an important tool for the fish to help them avoid predators, with the early recognition of odours helping to reduce their chances of being eaten.

“These fish can increase their chance of survival not only through cooperating with their kin, who will help alert them to danger, but they may also use these scents to select ‘safe’ habitats,” Dr. Atherton said.

The study involved the embryos of two species of common coral reef damselfish – the cinnamon clownfish, and the spiny chromis. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate kin recognition in a coral reef fish species, and even more remarkably this recognition develops among newly hatched larvae.

The study was a lab-based experiment, measuring fish embryo heart rates under a microscope – the embryos are transparent, so each individual heartbeat can be seen and counted.

“Looking at the change in heart rate from before and after the introduction of certain odours allowed us to quantify the fish embryo’s reaction to it,” says Dr. Atherton. She found different responses between kin, non-kin of the same species, and other species.

Damselfish are a diverse group of fish commonly found on coral reefs around the world. They perform many important functions that can promote the health of reef habitats.

The study “Kin recognition in embryonic damselfishes” is published in the journal Oikos: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/oik.03597/full


Please note that images must be credited as indicated per file name:



Prof Mark McCormick
Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0)7 4781 4048 (AEST)
Email: mark.mccormick@jcu.edu.au

Dr Jennifer Atherton
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies & James Cook University
Email: jennifer.atherton@my.jcu.edu.au


Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University

Townsville, QLD 4810 Australia
Phone: +61 (0)7 4781 6067, +61 (0) 428 785 895
Email: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au


Australian Research Council Pandora

Partner Research Institutions

Partner Partner Partner Partner
Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au