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

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Scientists have developed a new genetic tool that can help them better understand and ultimately work to save coral reefs.

“Surprisingly, we still don’t know how many coral species live on the Great Barrier Reef, how to identify them, or which species live where. And those are the first steps in saving an ecosystem like that,” said Dr Peter Cowman from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

Dr Cowman led an international study on coral classification. Classification explains how species are related to each other. Shared similarities and differences provide a key to help identify species. For example, dogs and cats are classified on different branches of the evolutionary tree using their body design.

A seemingly finer detail, like how cats can retract their claws and dogs cannot, helps people decide whether a newly discovered species of small carnivore is more like a dog or a cat.

Dr Cowman said an important challenge when identifying corals is that the same species can grow in many different ways.

“For instance, some species can grow with either a plate or branch structure. The study found classifying corals by their physical characteristics didn’t match the classifications based on their genetics,” he said.

Species identification underpins almost all biological and ecological research, and the new study challenges more than 200 years of coral classification. The researchers say the ‘traditional’ method does not accurately capture the differences between species or their evolutionary relationships.

Co-author Professor Andrew Baird, also from Coral CoE at JCU, led a recent scientific journey along the Great Barrier Reef, uncovering ‘treasure troves’ of new, unidentified coral species.

“The traditional classification of corals is dead,” Prof Baird said.

“But these new molecular tools allow us to reinvent a new classification system on the ashes of the old. Hence, the name we have given to the research: Project Phoenix,” he said.

“These are exciting times to be a coral taxonomist.”

“We need to review the way we currently identify corals,” said co-author Dr Tom Bridge from Coral CoE at JCU, who is also the curator of corals at the Queensland Museum.

Dr Bridge said research in the past ten to 20 years has already revolutionised the understanding of the older branches on the evolutionary tree of corals. But, to date, there has been little progress on the more recent twigs of the ‘tree’—the living species—particularly with the most diverse and ecologically-important group: the Acropora.

“The Acropora are the branching ‘staghorn’ corals that dominate reefs,” Dr Bridge said. “Yet, even in well-researched locations like the Great Barrier Reef, we can’t identify many of these species accurately.”

Dr Cowman said the traditional method doesn’t reflect the tens of millions of years of coral evolution.

“At the moment, we’re flying blind,” he said.

Dr Andrea Quattrini, curator of corals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, developed the new genetic tool. She said it provides a way forward with plans to secure the future of coral reefs.

“By comparing thousands of key genetic coral features, we were able to discern the evolutionary relationships of corals from the Great Barrier Reef and broader Indo-Pacific region,” Dr Quattrini said.

“The result is a new classification that provides important scientific knowledge to assess the various intervention strategies currently being proposed on the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere.”

Some of the interventions being proposed on the reef include hybridising species and moving some populations south.

“It’s clear we do not know enough about many of the species we’re dealing with. This new method can help generate the robust science we need to assess such proposals,” Dr Bridge said.


Cowman P, Quattrini A, Bridge T, Watkins-Colwell G, Fadli N, Grinblat M, Roberts E, McFadden C, Miller D, Baird A. (2020). ‘An enhanced target-enrichment bait set for Hexacorallia provides phylogenomic resolution of the staghorn corals (Acroporidae) and close relatives’. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2020.106944


Photos are available for media use here. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. Credit must be given to Tom Bridge. No archival permissions are granted. The whole or part of all images remain the property of the photographer and cannot be used, copied or disseminated in any way without prior written permission of the photographer other than for the purposes outlined above.


Dr Peter Cowman
P: 07 4781 3194
E: peter.cowman@jcu.edu.au

Dr Tom Bridge
P: 07 4726 0635
E: thomas.bridge@jcu.edu.au

Prof Andrew Baird
P: 0400 289 770
E: andrew.baird@jcu.edu.au


Melissa Lyne/ Coral CoE at JCU
P: 0415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study suggests ‘dead’ coral rubble can still sustain life, with a large number of tiny animals hidden and living amongst the ruins.

While the study does not suggest dead coral has the same or higher function as a live coral reef, it suggests reef rubble habitat is not as desolate, unattractive and ‘dead’ as is commonly assumed.

“When people think of coral reefs, they often think of larger invertebrates that are easily found, such as sea cucumbers, starfish and giant clams,” said lead author Dr Kenny Wolfe from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at The University of Queensland.

“But interestingly, dead coral rubble supports more of what we call ‘cryptic’ animals.”

Cryptic animals are ‘hidden’ creatures, including tiny crabs, fishes, snails and worms—all of which hide in the nooks and crannies of the reef to avoid predation.

“And just like on land with small insects and bugs, biodiversity in the sea can be dominated by these tiny invertebrates,” Dr Wolfe said.

As these creatures try to remain hidden, finding and surveying them requires particular care and attention.

Dr Wolfe teamed up with UQ Innovate to design 3D-printed coral stacks called RUBS (RUbble Biodiversity Samplers), to survey cryptic animals on coral reefs.

The 3D-printed ‘coral’ mimics the surrounding reef rubble, seamlessly inviting hidden reef organisms to be unknowingly monitored.

“Every piece of coral or rubble is different,” Dr Wolfe said.

RUBS provide a uniform method to survey the hidden majority on coral reefs. By sampling the RUBS’ structures over time, the team were able to identify changes in the cryptic population, adding pieces to the puzzle and filling in the unknowns of coral reef food webs.

“This data fills important knowledge gaps, such as how small cryptic animals support coral reefs from the bottom of the food chain, all the way up to bigger predators,” Dr Wolfe said.

He believes the new technique is another step in better understanding our precious reefs—whether ‘alive’ or ‘dead’.

“These are important habitats, which support coral reef biodiversity and important food webs,” Dr Wolfe said.

“This new technology is a new opportunity for reef management, particularly for reef education and awareness. We’re excited to learn about and celebrate the diversity of life in this misunderstood habitat.”


Wolfe K, Mumby P. (2020). ‘RUbble Biodiversity Samplers: 3D‐printed coral models to standardize biodiversity censuses’. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.13462


Dr Kenny Wolfe
P: 0424 184 483
E: k.wolfe@uq.edu.au

A new study on coral evolution has found climates similar to what we’re seeing today have previously devastated hard-bodied corals—the architects of coral reefs—while making way for their softer-bodied relatives.

The study traced the evolution of corals over the past 770 million years and found warmer and more acidic waters had a dramatic effect on the diversity of corals and sea anemones.

Hard or ‘stony’ corals that are the engineers of modern tropical reefs could only proliferate when ocean conditions allowed them to construct their stony skeletons. When conditions did not favour these reef building species, other diverse softer corals and sea anemones flourished.

The international team leading the research includes biologists from Harvey Mudd College, American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

Co-author Dr Peter Cowman, from Coral CoE at JCU, says the findings are consistent with observations from today’s reefs, which are threatened by climate change and other human activities.

“Human carbon emissions are already devastating coral reefs today,” he said.

The rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are warming and acidifying the waters, making them less hospitable for the hard corals and other organisms with shells and skeletons.

In the past, the soft-bodied species fared best after reef crises—at times when up to 90 percent of reef-building organisms died off as the oceans warmed and became more acidic.

However, though these softer-bodied species may be able to better adapt to climate change than stony corals, they don’t form large reefs.

The composition of corals on reefs has already undergone marked change—the Great Barrier Reef is not what it was 30, 10 or even five years ago.

“What we’re seeing now are changes in coral communities on reefs in response to the immediate threats of climate changes, like warmer waters,” Dr Cowman said. “On evolutionary timescales, changing ocean chemistry may make it more difficult for hard corals to grow, leading to more fundamental shifts in reef species.”

The new genetic analyses show that corals and sea anemones have been on the planet for 770 million years—250 million years before the earliest undisputed fossil evidence of their existence. In this time, they experienced massive shifts in climate, fluctuations in ocean chemistry and several mass extinctions.

The team examined how past conditions affected coral and sea anemone diversity, using a new molecular approach. They compared nearly 2,000 key regions of genomes to discern the evolutionary relationships between species.

The team analysed hundreds of specimens from around the world that are now stored in museum collections. When the molecular data was aligned with fossil evidence, it revealed how these diverse animals evolved over deep time.

Losing hard, reef-building corals has devastating impacts on the communities who depend on coral reefs and the rich, complex ecosystems they support for fishing, shoreline protection and tourism.

Lead author of the study, Dr Andrea Quattrini, research zoologist and curator of corals at the National Museum of Natural History, said corals suffered extinctions in the past when the climate posed challenges.

“We’ll likely see that in the future,” Dr Quattrini said. “The best way to protect them is to curb our carbon emissions.”

Co-author Dr Estefanía Rodríguez, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, said the study shows how nature—through evolution—is able to adapt, survive and reinvent itself.

“The question is whether we will be able to adapt and reinvent ourselves once nature, as we currently know it, is not there anymore,” Dr Rodríguez said.


Quattrini A, Rodríguez E, Faircloth B, Cowman P, Brugler M, Farfan G, Hellberg M, Kitahara M, Morrison C, Paz- García D, Reimer J, McFadden C. (2020). ‘Paleoclimate ocean conditions shaped the evolution of corals and their skeletons through deep time’. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-01291-1


Multimedia, including photos of living corals and their relatives, can be found via Dropbox here. (Password: coral).


Dr Peter Cowman (Australia, AEST)
P: 0490 231 223
E: peter.cowman@jcu.edu.au


Melissa Lyne (Australia, AEST)
Media Manager, Coral CoE at JCU
P: 0415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Researchers have discovered a new way to measure the complexity of the world’s habitats—a crucial factor as environments across the globe face extraordinary change.

The study was led by Damaris Torres-Pulliza, a PhD candidate at the University of Hawai`i at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB). Ms Torres-Pulliza and a team of ecologists and engineers, including from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU), developed a relatively simple way to standardise how habitat complexity is measured.

The researchers say habitats range from the abyssal trenches to the tops of mountains, from coral reefs to tundra. These can be relatively simple, flat surfaces to highly complex three-dimensional structures—a concrete driveway to an old brick-pile in the backyard, respectively.

The researchers studied the coral reefs encircling Lizard Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, using a mix of robots and underwater cameras to measure their three-dimensional structure.

Associate Professor Mia Hoogenboom from Coral CoE at JCU said places with lots of nooks and crannies contain lots of living things.

“We spent many hours underwater counting and identifying nearly 10,000 corals found on the 3D maps,” said Dr Hoogenboom.

“The new method we developed can be used in both marine and terrestrial environments, allowing us to understand how complexity and biodiversity are related to each other in all kinds of habitats,” she said.

Dr Hoogenboom says complex habitats tend to contain more biodiversity, both in terms of more individuals and more species. This relationship is important, because it highlights a relatively simple mechanism by which to manipulate biodiversity. If habitat complexity decreases, one would expect biodiversity to decrease.

Dr Joshua Madin, an associate researcher at HIMB, says habitats are characterised by three factors: rugosity, fractal dimension and height range.

“If you think of your backyard brick-pile, rugosity tells you the amount of surface area there is for critters to live on; fractal dimension tells how many critters of different sizes can fit in among the bricks, and; height range sets an upper limit to critter size,” Dr Madin said. “You won’t find an elephant in your bricks, right?”

The analysis suggests only two of the three measurements are needed to characterise the structure of a habitat. This means ecologists can pick the two aspects of complexity that are easiest to measure and will automatically know the third—similar to calculating the third angle of a triangle if two angles are already known.

The theoretical breakthrough means scientists can back-calculate a richer picture of habitat complexity from previous studies and compare habitat complexity among different ecosystems.

“We found that using the three metrics together dramatically improves our ability to predict the distribution of biodiversity. This helps us understand how the structure of a place affects who lives there,” said Dr Maria Dornelas of the University of St Andrews.

Though the work is new and currently only applied to coral reefs, the researchers hope that their new theory might become the backbone of research into the relationships between habitat complexity and biodiversity in all ecosystems, both underwater and on land.


Torres-Pulliza D, Dornelas M, Pizarro O, Bewley M, Blowes S, Boutros N, Brambilla V, Chase T, Frank G, Friedman A, Hoogenboom M, Williams S, Zawada K, Madin J. (2020) ‘A geometric basis for surface habitat complexity and biodiversity’. Nature Ecology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1281-8


Photos are available for media use here. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. The photos must be credited to Damaris Torres-Pulliza. No archival permissions are granted.

Melissa Lyne (Australia, AEST)
Media Manager, Coral CoE at JCU
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study shows nutrients can aggravate the already negative effects of climate change on corals to trigger mass coral bleaching.

Coral reef environments are typically low in naturally occurring nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous compounds. But ocean currents passing by can bring in a concentration of nutrients from elsewhere. Similarly, nutrients from man-made fertilisers and stormwater runoff enter reefs from adjacent coastlines.

Lead author Dr Thomas DeCarlo from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) says corals are sensitive to high levels of nutrients.

“As the climate warms, mass coral bleaching could occur as often as annually within this century,” Dr DeCarlo said. “In our study, we found that already heat-stressed corals exposed to excess nutrient levels were even more susceptible to bleaching.”

The study suggests ecosystem managers can reduce the impacts of coral bleaching by implementing strategies to reduce nutrient stress in areas subject to thermal stress.

Co-author Professor John Pandolfi from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at The University of Queensland says this and previous studies, including on the Great Barrier Reef, related coral bleaching to combinations of heat and nutrient stresses.

“Our results provide a roadmap for coral reef conservation efforts to be at their most effective,” Prof Pandolfi said. “We suggest oceanographic processes should be included when deciding when and where to allocate resources or protection.”

Using the skeletal cores of long-living corals, the authors studied the past few decades worth of bleaching events in the Red Sea. They found the reefs historically suffered severe bleaching only when high sea surface temperatures were coupled with high nutrient levels.

The Red Sea was chosen as a study site as it is one of the only marine environments where the effects of summertime nutrients and heat stress are independent of each other: only one area has a single major source of nutrients in the summer, when a water mass brings nutrients to the surface through a process called upwelling.

Previous field tests on the role of nutrients in coral bleaching were otherwise difficult: nutrients and temperature often co-vary in the ocean, making it difficult to disentangle their effects. Nutrient loads are also difficult to measure in the same way sea surface temperatures are, via satellite.

“The fact that nutrients are more difficult to measure than temperature may be restricting our recognition of their importance,” Dr DeCarlo said. “And we need greater longer-term monitoring efforts of nutrient levels on coral reefs.”

“Incorporating nutrient-supplying ocean currents into coral bleaching forecasts will enhance those predictions that are based on temperatures alone,” Prof Pandolfi said.

“Our research suggests that projections of coral reef futures should move beyond solely temperature-based stress to incorporate the influence of ocean current systems on coral reef nutrient enrichment, and thus susceptibility to bleaching,” Dr DeCarlo said.


DeCarlo T, Gajdzik L, Ellis J, Coker D, Roberts M, Hammerman N, Pandolfi J, Monroe A, Berumen M. (2020). Science Advances. ‘Nutrient-supplying ocean currents modulate coral bleaching susceptibility’. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc5493


A photo is available for media use here. Please note this is for single use with this story only, not for any other story. It must be credited to Jess Bouwmeester. No archival permissions are granted.


Dr Thomas DeCarlo (Hawaii/USA, HST)
P: +1 808 221 8584
E: thomas.decarlo@kaust.edu.sa

Prof John Pandolfi (Australia, AEST)
P: +61 (0)400 982 301
E: j.pandolfi@uq.edu.au


Melissa Lyne (Australia, AEST)
Media Manager, Coral CoE
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A world-first study examining the scales of management of the Great Barrier Reef has the potential to help sustain other ecosystems across the world.

Massive marine ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef aren’t just a vibrant home to fish, corals and other creatures, they are also an important source of people’s food, livelihoods and recreation.

The new study suggests the way people are managed when undertaking various activities within the marine park—like fishing, boating, and scientific research—could serve as an exemplary model for sustainably managing other ecosystems that humans use.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Great Barrier Reef is managed at appropriate scales within its boundaries,” said lead author Professor Graeme Cumming, incoming Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The reef served as a case study for mapping and measuring different scale matches between people and ecosystems. Prof Cumming explains the concept of scale matches using a backyard garden as an example of an ecosystem.

“For a house with a garden, you already have permission to manage that garden—to mow the lawn and trim the trees inside your fences. To look after all the parts of it. That’s a scale match,” Prof Cumming said.

He says being able to manage only a flower bed within the garden is a small-scale match. “If you only have permission to manage the flower bed in your garden, you can manage the flowers, but your lawn and trees become unkempt. The weeds and pests affecting the flowers may come from an adjacent part of the garden, which you’d then have no control over,” he said.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) manages the entire marine park. Some permits, such as permission to access areas by boat as part of a commercial operation, may cover most of the park.

GBRMPA also manages smaller scale permits within the marine park boundaries—small-scale matches that work best for activities like commercial tourism, lobster fisheries or the installation of certain structures like jetties or moorings.

The study found the permits issued for human activities generally occurred at larger scales than the particular individual marine features of interest, such as reefs or islands.

“The finding that people are managed at a broader scale than ecological variation suggests a general principle for permitting and management,” Prof Cumming said. “In essence, people like to have choices about where they go and how they respond to change. This means that they prefer to operate at a broader spatial scale than the ecological features they are interested in, rather than the same scale.”

The findings suggest this approach to managing people at broader rather than finer scales may be more effective. For small protected areas, increasing the size of the permissible area may even be critical.

However, GBRMPA can’t manage the ecosystem’s biggest impact, which lies outside park boundaries: climate change.

“Broad scale problems, like climate change, can only be managed with broad scale solutions, like global action,” Prof Cumming said. “This is a scale mismatch because these impacts come from well outside the marine park boundaries.”

GBRMPA also don’t have control over what happens on the land directly adjacent to the reef. Not being able to stop pollutants and pesticides in storm water reaching the reef is another scale mismatch.

Prof Cumming says comparing the results of this study to similar data from other marine parks, including those that are recognised as dysfunctional, will help determine if the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is unusual or typical.

“This study does not offer a direct solution for management,” Prof Cumming said. “But it provides a new approach that extends our toolbox for diagnosing social-ecological scale mismatches and responding to them.”


Cumming S, Dobbs K. (2020). ‘Quantifying social-ecological scale mismatches suggests people should be managed at broader scales than ecosystems’. One Earth. DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2020.07.007


Professor Graeme Cumming
E: graeme.cumming@jcu.edu.au

Melissa Lyne
Media Manager, Coral CoE
P: +61 (0) 415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Connections with friends and family are key to helping communities adapt to the devastating impact of climate change on their homes and livelihoods, a new study shows.

The research found people are more empowered to respond when they see others doing the same.

Scientists analysed how an island community in Papua New Guinea of around 700 people coped with the impact of encroaching sea-levels and dwindling fish stocks. The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, examined the actions households took to deal with these impacts.

Lead author Dr Michele Barnes, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU), said: “We found their actions were related to their social networks, the ways they are connected to other people within the community.”

“To cope with the impacts of climate change, existing practices or behaviours can be tweaked—this is adaptation. However, in some cases this won’t be enough, and people need to enact more fundamental changes—transformation.”

“In our case, adaptation included things like building sea walls to protect existing land use,” said co-author Dr Jacqueline Lau, from Coral CoE and WorldFish. “And transformation involved developing alternative food and income sources away from fish and fishing-related activities.”

Essentially both sets of actions are necessary to combat the impacts of climate change.

Dr Barnes says influence within social networks is what encouraged both sets of actions. The team found the households more socially connected to others taking action were more likely to do the same.

“It may be a situation of ‘like-attracts-like’ where households with particular mindsets are more socially connected to similar households,” Dr Barnes said. “Another explanation is that households were influencing each other’s actions. It’s likely a combination of the two,” she said.

The authors also found household connections with the marine environment played an important role in determining the responses to climate impacts.

“Climate change and other human impacts rapidly degrade coral reef ecosystems and alter the composition of reef fish communities,” said co-author Professor Nick Graham, of Lancaster University in the UK.

“The adaptation of coastal communities is becoming essential. Our research highlights that interacting with and learning from the marine environment is one mechanism through which this adaptation can be achieved,” he said.

Dr Barnes says the policies and programs seeking to reduce vulnerability to climate change often focus on building up material assets or creating infrastructure.

“Our research emphasises a broader set of factors can play an important part in the actions communities end up taking,” she said.

Barnes M, Wang P, Cinner J, Graham N, Guerrero A, Jasny L, Lau J, Sutcliffe S, Zamborain-Mason J. (2020). ‘Social determinants of adaptive and transformative responses to climate change’. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-020-0871-4

Photos are available for media use here. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. They must be credited to the photographer. No archival permissions are granted.


Dr Michele Barnes (Australia, AEST)
P: +61 (0)408 677 570
E: michele.barnes@jcu.edu.au

Dr Jacqueline Lau (Australia, AEST)
P: +61 (0)403 990 738
E: jacqueline.lau@jcu.edu.au

Prof Nick Graham (London, BST)
P: +44 (0)7479 438914
E: nick.graham@lancaster.ac.uk


Melissa Lyne (Australia, AEST)
Media Manager, Coral CoE at JCU
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A massive global study of the world’s reefs has found sharks are ‘functionally extinct’ on nearly one in five of the reefs surveyed.

James Cook University’s Professor Colin Simpfendorfer was one of the scientists who took part in the study, published today in Nature by the Global FinPrint organisation. He said of the 371 reefs surveyed in 58 countries, sharks were rarely seen on close to 20 percent of those reefs.

“This doesn’t mean there are never any sharks on these reefs, but what it does mean is that they are ‘functionally extinct’—they are not playing their normal role in the ecosystem,” said Prof Simpfendorfer.

He said almost no sharks were detected on any of the 69 reefs of six nations: the Dominican Republic, the French West Indies, Kenya, Vietnam, the Windward Dutch Antilles and Qatar.

“In these countries, only three sharks were observed during more than 800 survey hours,” said Prof Simpfendorfer.

Dr Demian Chapman, Global FinPrint co-lead and Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Institute of Environment at Florida International University, said it’s clear the central problem is the intersection between high human population densities, destructive fishing practices, and poor governance.

“We found that robust shark populations can exist alongside people when those people have the will, the means, and a plan to take conservation action,” said Dr Chapman.

Prof Simpfendorfer said it was encouraging that Australia was among the best nations at protecting shark populations and ensuring they played their proper role in the environment.

“We’re up there along with such nations as the Federated States of Micronesia, French Polynesia and the US. These nations reflect key attributes that were found to be associated with higher populations of sharks: being generally well-governed, and either banning all shark fishing or having strong, science-based management limiting how many sharks can be caught,” he said. 

Jody Allen, co-founder and chair of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation which backs the Global FinPrint project, said the results exposed a tragic loss of sharks from many of the world’s reefs, but also gave some hope.

“The data collected from the first-ever worldwide survey of sharks on coral reefs can guide meaningful, long-term conservation plans for protecting the reef sharks that remain,” she said.

More than 100 authors contributed to the study, including three from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies: Professor Joshua Cinner, Stacy Bierwagen and Jessica Cramp.


MacNeil et al. (2020). ‘Global Status and Conservation Potential of Reef Sharks’. Nature. DOI: 0.1038/s41586-020-2519-y

Images, video and background material available here.

For more information and a new global interactive data-visualized map of the Global FinPrint survey results, visit https://globalfinprint.org.

Global FinPrint is an initiative of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and led by Florida International University, supported by a global coalition of partner organizations spanning researchers, funders and conservation groups. The project represents the single largest and most comprehensive data-collection and analysis program of the world’s populations of reef-associated sharks and rays ever compiled.

A study published today found national governments repeatedly resisted the placement of 41 UNESCO World Heritage sites—including the Great Barrier Reef—on the World Heritage in Danger list. This resistance is despite the sites being just as threatened, or more threatened, than those already on the in Danger list.

The study was co-authored by a team of scientists from Australia, the UK and the US.

World Heritage sites represent both natural and cultural heritage for global humanity. Their protection sits within the jurisdiction of individual countries. An in Danger listing is intended to raise awareness of threats to these sites and encourage investment in mitigation measures, such as extra protection.

Lead author Professor Tiffany Morrison from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU) says national governments responsible for these World Heritage sites use political strategies of rhetoric and resistance to avoid a World Heritage in Danger listing.

“Avoiding an in Danger listing happens through partial compliance and by exerting diplomatic pressure on countries that are members of the World Heritage Committee,” Prof Morrison said.

She says World Heritage in Danger listings are increasingly politicised. However, until now, little was known about what that politicisation entailed, and what to do about it.

The study found the net number of in Danger listings plateaued since the year 2000. At the same time, low visibility political strategies—such as industrial lobbying and political trade-offs associated with the listings—intensified.

“Our results also challenge the assumption that poor governance only happens in less technologically advanced economies. Rich countries often have poor governance too,” Prof Morrison said.

“We show that the influence of powerful industries in blocking environmental governance is prevalent in many regions and systems.”

The Great Barrier Reef, under the custodianship of the Australian Government, is just one of the threatened sites that continues to evade the World Heritage in Danger list.

Professor Terry Hughes, also from Coral CoE at JCU, says there is no doubt that coral reefs are in danger from man-made climate change.

“The study makes no recommendation on which World Heritage sites should be formally recognised as in Danger but points out that virtually all sites are increasingly impacted by anthropogenic climate change,” Prof Hughes said.

“The Great Barrier Reef was severely impacted by three coral bleaching events in the past five years, triggered by record-breaking temperatures,” he said.

World Heritage in Danger listings are frowned upon by high-value natural resource industries such as mining, forestry and environmental tourism. Prof Morrison says the in Danger listings restrict the social license of fossil fuel industries to operate.

“Industry coalitions therefore often lobby governments, UNESCO and World Heritage Committee member countries,” she said.

“They claim an in Danger listing diminishes their nation’s international reputation and restricts foreign investment, national productivity, and local employment. Some also challenge the World Heritage system itself and undermine reports by scientists, non-governmental organisations and the media.”

These lobbying efforts heighten a government’s sense of political threat by linking the listings to national economic performance, as well as to the individual reputations of politicians and senior bureaucrats.

“At the same time, UNESCO is acutely aware of these dynamics and concerned about threats to its own reputation,” Prof Morrison said.

“Politicians and bureaucrats often work to conceal these dynamics, resulting in poor governance and continued environmental degradation.”

Prof Morrison says revealing and analysing these dynamics is a step closer to moderating them.

The study provides new evidence for how interactions, from 1972 until 2019, between UNESCO and 102 national governments, have shaped the environmental governance and outcomes for 238 World Heritage ecosystems. It also provides examples of how concerned stakeholders can, and are, experimenting with countervailing strategies that harness these politics.

“Given the global investment in environmental governance over the past 50 years, it is essential to address the hidden threats to good governance and to safeguard all ecosystems,” the study concludes.


Morrison T, Adger W, Brown K, Hettiarachchi M, Huchery C, Lemos M, Hughes T. (2020). ‘Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystems’. Nature Sustainability. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-020-0568-8


Photos are available for media use. These are for single-use with this story only, not for any other story. The photographer must be credited as named within the image file name. No archival permissions are granted.


Melissa Lyne
Media Manager, Coral CoE at JCU
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au
P: + 61 (0)415 514 328



Scientists can now explain how baby reef sharks tolerate living in the sometimes-extreme environments of their nurseries—but, they also say these habitats face an uncertain future which may leave newborn sharks ‘trapped’.

The lead author of the study is Ian Bouyoucos, a PhD student at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

“Nearshore, shallow water nurseries provide food and abundant shelter where baby blacktip reef sharks can avoid bigger predators, such as other sharks,” Mr Bouyoucos said.

Though the word ‘nursery’ conjures images of soft, nurturing environments, these shallows are anything but. The habitats can be ‘extreme’, with dramatic changes in temperature and oxygen levels.

“It’s not a nice place really, in terms of environmental conditions,” said co-author Associate Professor Jodie Rummer, also from Coral CoE at JCU. The extremes of the shallows can mean high temperatures and low oxygen levels, which can be a strain at best.

“But we found the growth rate and metabolism of baby sharks is resilient to the temperature changes they currently face in these shallow habitats,” Mr Bouyoucos said.

“We also found the sharks with a greater tolerance for higher temperatures had a greater tolerance for low oxygen levels, which is really promising.”

Dr Rummer said mother blacktip reef sharks usually give birth close to shore. There may be, at most, only four pups born at a time with perhaps only one surviving.

“Essentially from the day they are born, these sharks have to be pretty tough in how their bodies work in order to tolerate these harsh environmental conditions,” Dr Rummer said.

The research was conducted within the largest shark sanctuary in the world—the French Polynesian shark sanctuary. The top threat to sharks worldwide is overfishing, but sharks are protected within the 4.8 million square kilometre sanctuary.

Though the young sharks appear resistant to extreme changes the authors warn, as waters get warmer with climate change, future populations are threatened. While the sanctuaries might successfully remove the number one threat to these sharks, they don’t protect against their second biggest threat: climate change.

“We know that healthy ocean ecosystems need healthy predators, and that healthy predators need healthy ecosystems—you can’t have one without the other,” Dr Rummer said.

She says newborn sharks have a narrow window of time in nursery habitats, where they have to grow, learn to hunt, and not get eaten.

“So, if these ecosystems disintegrate under climate change, the baby sharks fall into a ‘trap’,” Dr Rummer said.

“If they choose less harsh habitats, they lose their food and protection. If they remain within the safe, shallow nurseries, they suffer the effects of warming waters and decreasing oxygen levels. A trap, indeed.”

Mr Bouyoucos says while these sharks can cope with these challenging conditions now, they are approaching their limits.

“There are already extreme fluctuations and extreme highs going on in the shallows—and the conditions are only getting worse,” he said.

“We have to ask, will reef sharks continue to adapt and evolve over generations at a pace that’s fast enough to keep up with climate change?”

Bouyoucos I, Morrison P, Weideli O, Jacquesson E, Planes S, Simpfendorfer C, Brauner C, Rummer J. (2020). ‘Thermal tolerance and hypoxia tolerance are associated in blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) neonates’. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.221937

Photos are available for media use. They are for single-use with this story only, not for any other story. Terms of use are outlined in the ‘How to Credit’ file. No archival permissions are granted.


Ian Bouyoucos (currently in USA)
E: ian.bouyoucos@my.jcu.edu.au

Jodie Rummer (Townsville, Australia)
P: +61 (0) 439 166 171
E: jodie.rummer@jcu.edu.au

Melissa Lyne
Coral CoE Media Manager
P: +61 (0) 415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study illustrates the potential impact of recurrent heatwaves on coral species collected by the Australian aquarium coral industry.

The study’s lead author, Professor Morgan Pratchett from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU), says there are active and expanding aquarium coral fisheries operating across the country in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

“With widespread coral bleaching again affecting the Great Barrier Reef, and also occurring on coral reefs in Western Australia, there is inevitable concern regarding the sustainability and defensibility of ongoing coral harvesting,” Prof Pratchett said.

Prior to the study, scientists didn’t know much about the temperature sensitivity and bleaching susceptibility of Australian aquarium corals.

The researchers tested these parameters on six of the most important exported coral species from Australia.

“We found two of the most striking species were particularly susceptible and died at the temperatures you would expect when bleaching occurs,” Prof Pratchett said.

“These corals are most abundant within the nearshore habitats of the southern Great Barrier Reef—an area that bleached earlier this year.”

One of these species is the Australian saucer coral (Homophyllia australis), found just off the coast of Mackay.

With the worldwide demand for Australian aquarium corals increasing, a single aquarium specimen of Homophyllia australis fetched more than $8,000 AUD in Japan in 2017.

The study found the other, more widespread, aquarium corals were able to cope with higher temperatures. They bleached but didn’t die—the corals are already regularly exposed to extreme temperatures in a wide variety of different environments, including shallow tidal pools in north Western Australia.

“Understanding the differential susceptibilities of different coral species to environmental change is a very important aspect of managing coral fisheries,” Prof Pratchett said.

Australian coral fisheries are often the first to provide reports of coral bleaching across diverse reef environments, as they need to respond to changes in coral health.

“Those in the industry don’t collect bleached corals and actively avoid areas where there has been recent and severe mass bleaching,” Prof Pratchett said.

He said the study, which was supported by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, highlights the need for more specific and targeted in-situ monitoring for these popular aquarium corals.

This is especially crucial with the increasing threat posed by ongoing environmental change.


Pratchett M, Caballes C, Newman S, Wilson S, Messmer V, Pratchett D. (2020). ‘Bleaching susceptibility of aquarium corals collected across northern Australia’. Coral Reefs. DOI: 10.1007/s00338-020-01939-1


Photos are available for media use here. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. They MUST be credited to Ciemon Caballes. No archival permissions are granted.


Prof Morgan Pratchett
Phone: + 61 (0)7 4781 5747
Mobile: +61 (0)488 112 295
Email: morgan.pratchett@jcu.edu.au

Melissa Lyne
Media Manager, Coral CoE at JCU
Phone: +61 (0) 415 514 328
Email: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

One of the world’s finest water quality scientists, Dr Jon Brodie, has passed away. However, the crucial work he dedicated his life to—which included protecting the Great Barrier Reef—will benefit generations to come.

Dr Brodie was a Professorial Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University.

He made significant contributions to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, leading many research programs that broadened the public knowledge and scientific understanding of the Australian icon. In doing so, Dr Brodie was fearless. He often spoke out forcefully and truthfully about environmental issues.

Dr Brodie’s passion for science led him to complete a BSc in Inorganic Chemistry in 1968. He was then an analytical chemist and technical teacher at Newcastle Technical College for many years.

Following the completion of his post-graduate studies Dr Brodie held many roles including: Chief Research Scientist for the Centre for Tropical Water & Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER); Director of the Water Quality and Coastal Development Section at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), and; Director of the Institute of Natural Resources at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

Dr Brodie was a world authority on water quality: the sources of pollutants in catchments; the transport of pollutants to the marine environment; the dispersal of land-based pollutants in coastal and marine environments, and; the effects of terrestrial pollutants on marine ecosystems. He established the TropWATER water quality laboratory that still exists to this day.

Dr Brodie regularly advised Australian governments on policies regarding the management of water quality issues on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Director-General of the QLD Department of Environment and Science recently thanked Dr Brodie for his “leadership in investigating land use impacts on the Reef, and your dedication to water pollution research in the tropical north.” Both efforts produced crucial scientific evidence to support government actions to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Brodie’s work was fundamental in the development of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plans and Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan. The water quality targets he detailed within these publications guide today’s local land management.

Throughout his career, Dr Brodie published more than 100 peer reviewed articles and more than 300 technical reports, books and book chapters.

He was a giant in his field, widely acknowledged as irreplaceable. His work leaves a deep and enduring impact not only on the thousands of people who had contact with him, but on water quality and reef management all over the world.

Dr Brodie remained central to his field right to his final days, when, in typical fashion, he was working fruitfully on a range of research and policy outputs.

Though Dr Brodie’s valuable legacy remains, his meticulous science, fierce spirit and no nonsense straight-talking will be sorely missed.

Media contact

Melissa Lyne
Coral CoE media manager
P: 0415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

A new study reveals the diets of reef fish dictate how fast different species evolve. The breakthrough adds another piece to the fascinating evolutionary puzzle of coral reefs and the fishes that live on them.

“Up until now we knew that many factors could have influenced the pace of reef fish evolution, but these factors were never examined altogether,” said Alexandre Siqueira, the study’s lead author from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

“By building an evolutionary ‘tree of life’ for nearly all fishes associated with reefs, we were able to examine the variation in rates of species formation and ask what drives it,” said co-author Dr Peter Cowman, also from Coral CoE at JCU.

The ‘tree of life’ contains more than 6,000 fish species that live on coral reefs across the globe. Ecological and geographical data—such as diet and geographical range—were also gathered for the majority of these species.

The authors were surprised to find that what really matters in reef fish evolution isn’t geography, but what fish eat and how big they get.

“We found that the fastest way to have more species, or biodiversity, on a reef is to be big and vegetarian,” said co-author Professor David Bellwood, also from Coral CoE at JCU.

“Herbivores, such as surgeonfishes and parrotfishes, are key to the ecological diversity of coral reefs today.”

The study suggests these fishes also made way for today’s coral reefs to evolve and flourish.

“By feeding on the algae that compete with corals, herbivorous fishes may have also helped corals to expand through time,” Mr Siqueira said.

“In turn, this expansion in the corals allowed the diversification of other reef fish groups that depend on them.”

And these herbivorous fishes—big and small—still maintain coral reefs to this day.

The study offers a new way of looking at reefs with a functional, rather than taxonomic, approach. Very little is known about the functional evolution of reefs: what they do and how they work. Scientists previously only looked at how many reefs there were and what species were present.

“In this study it was important to understand the origins of the functional role a fish species plays on a reef—not just the species itself,” Dr Cowman said.

Today’s coral reefs differ from their early counterparts. It was only during the Miocene, less than 23 million years ago, that herbivorous fish species developed features that allowed them to explore different areas of the reef.

“Because of this, today’s reefs are highly dynamic and have a fast turnover. These herbivores are the key element that established modern coral reefs,” Prof Bellwood said.

“Understanding how reefs are constructed throughout their evolution means we can reach a better understanding of the fundamental processes that maintain them in a healthy state today,” Mr Siqueira said.


Siqueira A, Morais R, Bellwood D, Cowman P. (2020).  ‘Trophic innovations fuel reef fish diversification’. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-16498-w


Photos and videos are available for media use here. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. They must be credited as stated. No archival permissions are granted.


Mr Alexandre Siqueira
P: +61 (0)498 574 927
E: alexandre.siqueira@my.jcu.edu.au

Dr Peter Cowman
P: +61 (0)490 231 223
E: peter.cowman@jcu.edu.au

Prof David Bellwood
P: +61 (07) 4781 4447
E: david.bellwood@jcu.edu.au


Melissa Lyne
Media Manager, Coral CoE at JCU
P: +61 (0)415 514 328
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

An innovative new assessment process shows the iconic Shark Bay World Heritage property in Western Australia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Associate Professor Scott Heron and Jon Day, both from the ARC Centre of Excellence at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU) developed the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) process to identify the environmental and socioeconomic vulnerability of World Heritage properties.

The CVI assessment indicated that the 23,000-square-kilometre Shark Bay property, on the westernmost point of the Australian continent, is at great risk.

“Shark Bay has High Vulnerability to potential impacts of three key climate stressors – Air Temperature Change, Storm Intensity and Frequency, and Extreme Marine Heat Events – by 2050, with a low capacity for the system to adapt to climate change,” Dr Heron said.

The assessment also considered the economic dependence of key business types on the area, the local population’s connection with the area, and the capacity of the community to adapt to climate change.

Chair of the Shark Bay World Heritage Advisory Committee Phil Scott said around 100,000 tourists visit the area each year to see dolphins, turtles, dugongs and the world’s most extensive population of stromatolites that date back billions of years.

“Commercial and recreational fishing are also extremely important for the local and state economy, so this assessment helps us to better understand just how vulnerable Shark Bay is,” Mr Scott said.

The final report was produced by the Shark Bay World Heritage Advisory Committee and the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) in collaboration with Coral CoE at JCU.

WAMSI Research Director Dr Jenny Shaw said, “The CVI process showed the effects of climate change will have a high degree of impact on the Shark Bay community both socially and economically.”

Shark Bay is one of Australia’s 20 properties on the World Heritage List, along with natural and cultural icons such as Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House.

Shark Bay, or Gatharragudu (two-waters), is one of only four marine properties in the world that meets all four natural criteria for World Heritage listing.

Local experts, and representatives from the community, management agencies and academic institutions contributed to two workshops in Western Australia through the CVI process (in Denham, September 2018 and Perth, June 2019).

The CVI has also been applied in international World Heritage properties including a cultural site in the Orkney Islands, Scotland; and the Wadden Sea, a tri-national natural property (Germany, Netherlands and Denmark).

The Shark Bay CVI report is available at: http://www.wamsi.org.au/cvi-shark-bay


Dr Scott Heron – Associate Professor in Physics, James Cook University Townsville 0404 893 420

Phil Scott – Chair, Shark Bay World Heritage Advisory Committee 0418 954 467

Dr Jenny Shaw – Research Director, WAMSI 0401 121 975

Aleta Johnston – Communications Manager, WAMSI 0431 514 677








New research on the Great Barrier Reef associates severe coral loss with substantial increases in the size of large, long-living herbivorous fish. However, the ecosystem is also left vulnerable to crashing.

In research published in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology, an international team of researchers compared reef surveys from 2003-2004 and 2018. They found severe coral loss—up to 83% in some areas—was associated with increases in fish biomass, productivity and consumed biomass. This means the reef currently has more energy stored in the form of fish weight, is able produce more fish weight, and these fish are being consumed by predators.

Lead author Renato Morais, a PhD candidate from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, said “It’s as if the herbivorous fish community has been scaled up, with larger fish growing and providing more food for predators when they die.”

However, he warns this comes at a cost.

Superficially, the presence of bigger fish after a coral reef collapse suggests a stable population. But the researchers warn that reduced turnover, or recycling of biomass, means this feature might not last long.

“The fish have not multiplied,” Mr Morais said. “Instead, there are more bigger fish and less smaller ones.”

“This suggests that many of these long-living herbivorous fishes, such as surgeon fish which can live up to 40 years, could have been there before the corals died, only growing bigger. Eventually, these older fish will die and, if not replaced by young ones, productivity could collapse.”

The increased growth of large fish like surgeonfish, parrotfish and rabbitfish is likely to have been made possible by the accessibility and quality of algal turf, the preferred food of these herbivores. These algal ‘lawns’ grow abundantly over the skeletons of dead coral. A recovery of the coral could result in a reduction in this food source and collapse of these herbivores.

Erosion of dead coral structures and subsequent loss of refuges for fish could also cause a population crash. Although the researchers did observe a decline in coral structure in the reef area studied, it is possible that it had not reached a level where fish biomass would start to decline.

Between 2014 and 2017 the reefs around Lizard Island, where the research took place, were subjected to two back-to-back mass bleaching events and two severe cyclones that decimated the coral populations. Combined, these events led to an 80 percent decline in coral cover throughout the area.

Previous research has mainly taken a static look at the impacts of coral loss on fish. But in this study the researchers looked at the cumulative effects of coral mortality over time using metrics often absent from coral reef studies: fish growth, mortality and energy turnover.

The researchers are now looking to follow any new energetic shifts.

“Will there be a recovery of corals? Or will this degraded state be maintained?” Mr Morais said.

“Then, will these large and old herbivorous fishes be replaced by younger ones?”

“There are many aspects in this story to be investigated.”


Morais R, Depczynski M, Fulton C, Marnane M, Narvaez P, Huertas V, Brandl S, Bellwood D. (2020). Functional Ecology. ‘Severe coral loss shifts energetic dynamics on a coral reef’. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.13568


Renato Morais
E: renato.morais@my.jcu.edu.au

Davy Falkner
Media Relations Officer, British Ecological Society
E: Davy@britishecologicalsociety.org

Though coral reefs are in sharp decline across the world, scientists say some reefs can still thrive with plentiful fish stocks, high fish biodiversity, and well-preserved ecosystem functions.

An international team, led by Professor Josh Cinner from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU), assessed around 1,800 tropical reefs from 41 countries across the globe.

“Only five percent of the reefs were simultaneously able to meet the combined goals of providing enough fishing stocks, maintaining biodiversity and a working ecosystem,” Prof Cinner said.

“These are like the Hollywood A-listers of coral reefs. They have it all, but they’re also rare and live in exclusive areas—remote locations with little human pressure. Our study shows how to help other coral reefs get on that A-list.”

The research team assessed if no-fishing marine reserves and other fisheries restrictions helped reefs to meet multiple goals. The study found that implementing such local efforts helped, “but only if the management efforts are in the right locations,” Prof Cinner said.

“It’s all about location, location, location,” he said. “Marine reserves placed in areas with low human pressures had the best results for helping reefs get on the A-list.”

“We also had a B-list of reefs, which met all the goals, but to a lesser degree. Reserves in areas with intermediate human pressure made the biggest difference to getting reefs on our B-list. Quite simply, they occurred in less exclusive locations than our A-listers.”

However, marine reserves made little difference in areas where the environment was so severely degraded that only wider seascape conservation could help.

Co-author Jessica Zamborain-Mason, a Coral CoE and JCU PhD candidate, says coral reefs worldwide are facing intense degradation due to numerous anthropogenic drivers, such as overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

“There is an increasing need to manage coral reefs to meet multiple goals simultaneously,” she said.

“Our findings provide guidance on where to strategically place local management to achieve the greatest benefits.”

Co-author Professor Nick Graham from Lancaster University says the study uses data to show what works.

“Coral reef science and management is often focussed on meeting just a single goal,” Prof Graham said.

“Managing for just one goal at a time is common, but what if you want it all? The multiple goals of biodiversity, fisheries and functioning ecosystems are often required at any given location, yet the science to understand when and how this can be achieved has been lacking.”

“We looked at the fish communities, not the coral communities, and these are affected by different drivers—overfishing really drives the former and climate change the latter.”

“The study not only has important implications for the placement of new marine reserves, but is also relevant to future socioeconomic changes, such as how infrastructure development and population growth may impact the efficacy of reef conservation,” Prof Cinner said.

“We show where managers will be able to maximise multiple goals, and likewise, where they will be wasting their time.”

The study concludes that, while international action on climate change is crucial for ensuring a future for coral-dominated reefs, effective management is also critical to sustaining reefs—and the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on them.


 Cinner J, Zamborain-Mason J, Gurney G, Graham N, MacNeil A, Hoey A, Mora C, Villéger S, Maire E, McClanahan T, Maina J, Kittinger J, Hicks C, D’agata S, Huchery C, Barnes M, Feary D, Williams I, Kulbicki M, Vigliola L, Wantiez L, Edgar G, Stuart-Smith R, Sandin S, Green A, Beger M, Friedlander A, Wilson S, Brokovich E, Brooks A, Cruz-Motta J, Booth D, Chabanet P, Tupper M, Ferse S, Sumaila R, Hardt M, Mouillot D. (2020). Science. ‘Meeting fisheries, ecosystem function, and biodiversity goals in a human-dominated world.’ DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9412


Photos and videos are available for media use here. Please note these are for single-use with this story only, not for any other story. They must be credited as stated and are not to be archived.


Prof Josh Cinner
Phone: + 61 417 714 138
Email: joshua.cinner@jcu.edu.au

Jessica Zamborain-Mason
Email: jessica.zamborainmason@my.jcu.edu.au

Prof Nick Graham
Phone: +44 7479 4389 14
Email: nick.graham@lancaster.ac.uk


Melissa Lyne
Media Manager, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0) 415 514 328
Email: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef is experiencing its third coral bleaching event in just five years. The 2020 bleaching is severe, and more widespread than earlier events.

“We surveyed 1,036 reefs from the air during the last two weeks in March, to measure the extent and severity of coral bleaching throughout the Barrier Reef region,” said Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

“For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and now large parts of the southern sectors,” Prof Hughes said.

Coral bleaching at regional scales is caused by thermal stress due to spikes in sea temperatures during unusually hot summers. The first recorded mass bleaching event along the Great Barrier Reef occurred in 1998, then the hottest year on record. Four more mass bleaching events have occurred since—as more temperature records were broken—in 2002, 2016, 2017, and now in 2020.

This year, February had the highest monthly temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology’s sea surface temperature records began in 1900.

“Bleaching isn’t necessarily fatal, and it affects some species more than others,” said Professor Morgan Pratchett, also from Coral CoE at JCU, who led underwater surveys to assess the bleaching.

“A pale or lightly bleached coral typically regains its colour within a few weeks or months and survives,” he said.

However, many corals die when bleaching is severe. In 2016, more than half of the shallow-water corals died on the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef.

“We will go back underwater later this year to assess the losses of corals from this most recent event,” Prof Pratchett said.

“The north was the worst affected region in 2016, followed by the central region in 2017. In 2020, the cumulative footprint of bleaching has expanded further to include the south.”

The distinctive footprint of each bleaching event closely matches the location of hotter and cooler conditions in different years.

“As summers grow hotter and hotter, we no longer need an El Niño event to trigger mass bleaching at the scale of the Great Barrier Reef,” Prof Hughes said.

“Of the five events we have seen so far, only 1998 and 2016 occurred during El Niño conditions.”

The gap between recurrent bleaching events is shrinking, hindering a full recovery.

“We have already seen the first example of back-to-back bleaching—in the consecutive summers of 2016 and 2017,” Prof Hughes said.

After five bleaching events, the number of reefs that have so far escaped severe bleaching continues to dwindle. Those reefs are located offshore, in the far north, and in remote parts of the south.


A selection of photos and videos relating to the surveys are available for media use here. Please note these are for single use only, for this media release, and not for any other story. They must be credited and are not to be archived.

A video summary is available via The Australian Academy of Science here.


Prof Terry Hughes (AEST)
Phone: +61 (0)400 720 164
Email: terry.hughes@jcu.edu.au

Prof Morgan Pratchett (AEST)
Phone: + 61 (0)7 4781 5747
Mobile: +61 (0)488 112 295
Email: morgan.pratchett@jcu.edu.au


Melissa Lyne (AEST)
Media Manager, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0) 415 514 328
Email: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Stunning ‘gardens’ of deep-sea corals have been discovered in the Bremer Canyon Marine Park by Australian and international scientists during an oceanographic expedition aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor.

FREMANTLE – Bremer Canyon Marine Park is already known as a biodiversity hotspot for marine species such as whales and dolphins, however, a recent expedition focused on the deep sea has now revealed rich and diverse ecosystems inhabiting the cold waters deep within the canyon. Led by researchers from the University of Western Australia (UWA), including from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE), these discoveries were only made possible by the philanthropic Schmidt Ocean Institute’s (SOI) deep-sea remotely operated vehicle, SuBastian, which is capable of sampling depths to 4,500 meters.

The team strategically collected deep-sea corals, associated fauna, seawater, and geological samples from the abyssal depths (~4,000 meters) to the continental shelf (~200 meters). “We have already made a number of remarkable discoveries from the Bremer Canyon” said Dr Julie Trotter, the Chief Scientist from UWA who led the expedition. “The vertical cliffs and ridges support a stunning array of deep-sea corals that often host a range of organisms and form numerous mini-ecosystems”.

These new discoveries are being integrated into a comprehensive package of biological, geological, and bathymetric data. Such rare records of these deep-sea habitats are a new and very important contribution to the Marine Parks, which will help managers as well as the broader community to better understand and protect these previously unknown ecosystems.

The deeper waters in the three oceans that surround Australia, including the world’s largest barrier reef and submarine canyons, are largely unexplored. The expedition explored the Bremer, Leeuwin and Perth canyons, all of which have extensive fossil coral deposits, with the Leeuwin especially notable for a massive pedestal-like coral graveyard.

“This has global implications given these waters originate from around Antarctica which feed all of the major oceans and regulate our climate system” said Professor Malcolm McCulloch from Coral CoE at UWA.

The country has only one oceanographic vessel available for scientific research and no supporting deep sea underwater robots, which makes this expedition so important and rare.

Facing the Southern Ocean, the Bremer Canyon provides important information on the recent and past histories of climate change and ocean conditions in this region, as well as global scale events. Because the Southern Ocean completely encircles Antarctica, it is the main driver of the global climate engine and regulates the supply of heat and nutrient-rich waters to the major oceans. “A particular species of solitary cup coral was found during the expedition. This is significant because we are working on the same coral in the Ross Sea on the Antarctic shelf, in much colder waters”, said collaborator and co-Chief Scientist Dr Paolo Montagna from the Institute of Polar Sciences in Italy. “This is an important connection between disparate sites across the Southern Ocean, which helps us trace changes in water masses forming around Antarctica and dispersing northward into the Indian and other oceans”.

You can view some of the amazing species discoveries in 4K here Additional high resolution images and Broll can be found here. You can watch the wrap-up video for the expedition here. You can learn more at https://schmidtocean.org/cruise/coralandcanyonadventure/.


Simone Hewett (UWA)
E: simone.hewett@uwa.edu.au

Dr. Carlie Wiener (Schmidt Ocean Institute)
E: cwiener@schmidtocean.org

Scientists using sophisticated genetic analysis techniques have found that some fish are better than others at coping with heatwaves.

A world-first study tracked how wild fish populations responded to a severe marine heatwave, focussing on the 2016 event that killed a third of the Great Barrier Reef corals.

“Our study shows that reef fishes are directly affected by heatwaves, but their responses vary greatly between species,” said co-author Dr Jodie Rummer, Associate Professor from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

Dr Rummer was part of an international team that tracked changes in the expression of thousands of different genes in five species of coral reef fishes collected at different time points before, during, and after the 2016 heatwave.

“Changes in gene expression can tell us how an animal responds physiologically to an environmental shock, such as a heatwave,” said one of the co-lead authors, Dr Celia Schunter from the University of Hong Kong.

Regulating gene expression is critical to an organism’s performance and survival.

It is analysed by tracking RNA, which is responsible for converting the genetic information in DNA into a format used to build proteins.

Essentially, RNA controls when proteins are made and in what amount, dictating how cells will function. This can give us clues of how an organism is responding.

The scientists identified species-specific responses to the heightened temperatures, with some fish struggling more than others.

“Spiny damselfish responded to the warmer conditions with changes in the expression of thousands of genes, suggesting it is particularly sensitive to heatwaves,” said co-lead author Dr Moisés Bernal, Assistant Professor at Auburn University. “Other species appear to be more tolerant, with fewer changes in gene expression.”

The results also suggest that fish populations are influenced by both the intensity of a heatwave and how long it lasts.

“Marine heatwaves are becoming more frequent, more severe, and are further exacerbated by climate change,” Dr Rummer said.

“We found the physiological mechanisms the fish used to cope with the warmer waters changed as the heatwave progressed,” she said.

The study provides a possible approach for predicting which fish species are most at risk under repeated heatwave conditions, said co-author Professor Timothy Ravasi, from the Marine Climate Change Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST).

“Our results are important because they show that when scientists do experiments, or target commercial species, they cannot generalise based on geography or from one or two species that have been studied in the laboratory,” he said.

“This has ramifications for policy makers and for the fishing industry, because not all species will be equally affected. We need to screen a large number of species to predict which will be sensitive and which will be more tolerant to warming waters and heatwaves.”

“Over time, the fish may adapt to rising temperatures, or even migrate to cooler waters,” Dr Rummer said.

“But these heatwaves are happening now, and it’s necessary to understand and consider the immediate consequences.”

PAPER: Bernal M, Schunter C, Lehmann R, Lightfoot D, Allan B, Veilleux H, Rummer J, Munday P, Ravasi T. (2019). Science Advances. ‘Species-specific molecular responses of wild coral reef fishes during a marine heatwave.’ DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay3423

A selection of images for media stories can be used only with credit to the photographer as stated in the image file name.


Associate Prof Jodie Rummer (AEST)
P: + 61 (0)439 166 171
E: jodie.rummer@jcu.edu.au

Prof Timothy Ravasi (JST)
P: +81 8064 950 157
E: timothy.ravasi@oist.jp

Dr Celia Schunter (HKT)
P: +85 297 474 723
E: schunter@hku.hk


Melissa Lyne (AEDT)
Media Manager, Coral CoE
E: melissa.lyne@jcu.edu.au

Researchers have identified key factors that increase the risk of diseases that threaten coral reefs – and their work could one day be used to predict and manage future outbreaks.

“Reducing disease risk during non-outbreak periods is more achievable than trying to stop a disease outbreak once it has begun,” said co-author Scott Heron, Associate Professor at James Cook University (JCU).

“Healthy coral reefs are vital to reef tourism, and disease outbreaks can wreak havoc on coral ecosystems.

“Rather than studying an active outbreak, we focused on understanding the biological, environmental, human-related, and physical drivers of disease.”

The research shows that growth anomalies – ‘coral cancers’ – are more common in reefs with fewer fish, limited water motion, and in areas adjacent to watersheds with high fertiliser and pesticide runoff.  

In contrast, infectious disease that cause coral tissue loss are associated with wave exposu­re, stream exposure, depth, and fewer occurrences of warm ocean temperature. 

Common to both disease types is that larger, older colonies are more susceptible to disease than smaller, younger colonies.

“These results significantly boost our ability to predict future outbreaks based on environmental conditions,” said lead author Dr Jamie Caldwell, a visiting scientist at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hawai‘i.

They could also enable us to manage human-related disease drivers to evade outbreaks altogether.

“This information could be used to improve coastal development plans, by considering the downstream effects of different land-use types on corals.”

Because some diseases are rare and hard to observe, it has been difficult in the past to identify which disease drivers were most impactful.

To investigate what drives disease on coral reefs, the researchers used a statistical technique typically used to study human diseases, pairing observations from diseased and healthy corals.

“The methods we used in this study highlight the power of the experimental design common in epidemiology but rarely, if ever, used in ecological studies,” said Megan Donahue, co-author of the study and associate researcher at the University of Hawai‘i.

The team is now using the relationships they identified to forecast coral disease outbreak risk across the Indo-Pacific.

This is part of a NASA-funded project to develop seasonal and near real-time forecasts of coral disease outbreak risk for all US-affiliated Pacific Islands and the Great Barrier Reef. The forecasts will be publicly available through NOAA Coral Reef Watch, one of the project partners.

Caldwell J, Aeby G, Heron S, Donahue M. (2020). Nature. ‘Case-control design identifies ecological drivers of endemic coral diseases’. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1101/662320


Dr Jamie Caldwell
E: jsziklay@hawaii.edu

Dr Scott Heron
P: +61 (0)7 4781 4199
M: +61 (0)404 893 420
E: scott.heron@jcu.edu.au


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