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 discovered a never-before-seen biodiversity pattern of coral reef fishes that suggests some fishes might be exceptionally vulnerable to environmental change.

A new study shows plankton-eating coral reef fishes (planktivores) are far more diverse than others in the Indo-Australian Archipelago, a global marine biodiversity hotspot.

The findings highlight, for the first time, a unique link between the diet and distribution of species across the marine realm.

“The archipelago is one of the most complex and dynamic geological regions in the tropics,” said lead author Dr Ale Siqueira from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU). “And its fishes underpin its status as a biodiversity hotspot.”

“The exceptional success of planktivores may be a result of the hotspot’s unique geological configuration and oceanographic currents, which ensure a constant and abundant source of planktonic food,” said co-author Professor David Bellwood, also from Coral CoE at JCU.

“Such stable conditions over the past five million years are likely to have promoted the accumulation of planktivorous fish species in the hotspot.”

While planktivores thrive in the hotspot, they have had a difficult history in more remote areas with the possibility of food shortages and periodic extinctions.

“Planktivore richness drops abruptly away from the marine hotspot—and more so than any of the other dietary categories studied,” Dr Siqueira said.

These findings suggest a vulnerability of planktivorous coral reef fishes to environmental change, despite their species richness within the hotspot.

“We examined the global diversity patterns for more than 3,600 coral reef fishes,” said co-author Dr Pete Cowman from Coral CoE at JCU and Queensland Museum.

Dr Cowman said the research identified a link between biodiversity, food and habitat—emphasising the importance of species interactions with their environment.

“Understanding the ecosystem roles of different species and how they have changed through space and time offers the potential for exciting new insights, as revealed by our planktivores,” Dr Cowman said.

Dr Siqueira said a deeper understanding of species interactions is needed.

“Future research should focus on the ecosystem roles that different species play,” Dr Siqueira said.

“We need to describe changes in the roles of species through space and time, rather than simply documenting species and their numbers; the traditional approach in science.”


Siqueira A, Morais R, Bellwood D, Cowman P. (2021). ‘Planktivores as trophic drivers of global coral reef fish diversity’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2019404118


A selection of images can be used for media stories with credit to Victor Huertas. Please note these are for single use with this story only, not for any other story. No archival permissions are granted.


Ale Siqueira (limited communication, please contact Melissa at end of release)
E: alexandre.siqueira@my.jcu.edu.au

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

Pete Cowman (Townsville, Australia)
P: +61 (0)490 231 223
E: peter.cowman@jcu.edu.au


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

A group of Australian scientists has created the world’s first computer model that can accurately predict the movements of baby coral trout across the Great Barrier Reef.

The study confirms the importance of protecting the fish larvae produced in no-take zones for the health of fish populations within nearby fishing zones.

Tracking the lives of thousands of tiny baby fish is no easy task. But knowing where they’ll settle and spend their lives as adults is invaluable data for the fishing industry and reef managers.

The accuracy of the model was tested in a recent study—led by Dr Michael Bode from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University (JCU)—that validates the computer predictions with field data.

This is a world-first achievement, combining the movement of ocean currents in and around the Great Barrier Reef with the genetic and behavioural data of fish.

“The study is a unique conservation collaboration between marine biologists, geneticists, and recreational fishers,” Dr Bode said.

“This was a major field effort combined with some clever genetic work that involved matching baby fish to their parents to understand their movement,” co-author Dr Hugo Harrison, also from Coral CoE at JCU, said. “The behaviour of fish in their first few weeks after hatching can really influence where they eventually settle.”

The study focussed on coral trout, Plectropomus maculatus, which is one of the most valuable species of fish regularly caught on the Great Barrier Reef.

To test the computer model’s predictions 1,190 juvenile and 880 adult fish were tracked—from spawning locations to settlement—across the reef for two years.

The computer model recreates the movements of baby fish across space and time by considering what depth the coral trout swim at, how fast they swim, and how they orient themselves as they grow older.

The results highlight the interconnectedness of reefs, and how important no-take zones are when considering future adult fish populations.

“Our results prove that the Great Barrier Reef’s no-take zones are connected with invisible threads,” Dr Bode said.

“Knowing how reefs are connected to one another means fishers and managers alike can identify which areas are likely to be most productive and need protecting,” Dr Harrison said. “It’s the babies from these protected areas that will continue to restock fish populations on neighbouring reefs where fishing is allowed.”

Dr Bode said establishing the accuracy of these models is an important breakthrough.

“Our match between models and data provides reassuring support for using them as decision-support tools, but also directions for future improvement.”


Bode M, Leis J, Mason L, Williamson D, Harrison H, Choukroun S, Jones G (2019). PLOS Biology. ‘Successful validation of a larval dispersal model using genetic parentage data’. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000380


Images are available for media use with this story only here. Please credit as marked.


Dr Michael Bode (AEST)
M: +61 (0) 414 108 439
E: michael.bode@qut.edu.au

Dr Hugo Harrison (AEST)
M:+61 (0) 499 523 939
E: hugo.harrison@jcu.edu.au


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


An international group of scientists is making major advances in sustaining the world’s environments, untangling the intricate ways in which people and nature depend on each other.

The results are published in today’s Nature Sustainability and includes contributions from a team of scientists based at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE).

With major crises such as extinctions and environmental degradation now upon us, the timing of the study is crucial.

“Environmental problems are messy,” Dr Michele Barnes from Coral CoE said. “They often involve multiple, interconnected resources and a lot of different people—each with their own unique relationship to nature.”

The paper, led by Dr Örjan Bodin from Stockholm University, proposes several advances to a ‘network approach’ that can better analyse and help solve these problems by identifying the key relationships between people and nature that underpin them.

“Research has traditionally only measured and described problems,” Dr Bodin said.

“We are advancing a method that can go beyond this, to find new solutions to environmental challenges,” he said.

Prof Graeme Cumming from Coral CoE said social, economic, and ecological aspects all need consideration to govern and manage sustainable ecosystems.

“These elements often interact in complex ways and are mutually dependent,” Prof Cumming said. “A rapidly changing world means these interdependencies will only increase at all scales—from local to global.”

For example, introducing forest conservation policies in a wealthy country leads to an increase in supply for wood products from a less developed country—leading to de-forestation there.

“Identifying the shortcomings of these human-nature relationships are a relatively easy task. Possible solutions aren’t,” Dr Barnes said.

“This paper paves a path forward for future studies to better address these issues, with research design guidelines to help scholars move beyond single case studies.”


Bodin Ö, Alexander S, Baggio J, Barnes M, Berardo R, Cumming G, Dee L, Fischer A, Fischer M, Mancilla-Garcia M, Guerrero A, Hileman J, Ingold K, Matous P, Morrison T, Nohrstedt D, Pittman J, Robins G, and Sayles J (2019).  ‘Improving network approaches to the study of complex social–ecological interdependencies’. Nature Sustainability. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0308-0


Dr Michele Barnes (Australia, AEST)
P: +61 (0)7 4781 6328
M: +61 (0)408 677 570
E: michele.barnes@jcu.edu.au

Prof Graeme Cumming (AEST)
P: +61 (0)7 4781 6072
E: graeme.cumming@jcu.edu.au


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


A group of international scientists, including scientists from Australia, have issued advice that more research is urgently required to determine whether corals can acclimatise* and adapt to the rapid pace of climate change.

The team of coral experts, led by Dr. Gergely Torda from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), have delivered recommendations for future research.

As the Great Barrier Reef faces unprecedented coral mortality from back-to-back mass bleaching in 2016 & 2017, rising carbon dioxide and other natural and human-induced pressures, scientists advise more research is urgently needed into the poorly-understood mechanisms that corals might use to survive in a rapidly warming world.

“There is still a lot to understand about corals,” says Dr. Torda. “While our only real chance for their survival is to reverse climate change, a nugget of hope exists – that the corals may be able to adapt to their changing environment,” he says.

“However, there are major knowledge gaps around how fast corals can adapt or acclimatise to changes in their environment, and by what mechanisms they might use to achieve this,” adds co-author Professor Philip Munday of Coral CoE.

“For example,” explains Dr Jenni Donelson, co-author at Coral CoE,”recent studies show that fish can acclimatise to higher water temperatures when several generations are exposed to the same increased temperature, but whether corals can do the same, and how they might achieve this, is largely unknown.”

Eight research recommendations are published today in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change   and arise from a workshop with a team of experts composed of 22 biologists from 11 institutions in five different countries.

The team agrees that further research identifying how corals respond to climate change is critical, as the Earth undergoes an unprecedented rate of environmental change.

AIMS Climate Change Scientist, Dr. Line Bay says, “There is sufficient inertia in the climate system that we will not be able to prevent further climate-related disturbances affecting the reef in the immediate future.”

“Solutions are required to help corals adapt and acclimate to near-term future climate pressures while we figure out how to reduce emissions and halt and reverse longer-term climate change.”

Co-authors Prof. Timothy Ravasi and Dr. Manuel Aranda from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) warn that the clock is ticking. “The Great Barrier Reef has suffered substantial losses of coral over the past two years. Understanding the mechanisms that could enable corals to cope with ocean warming is becoming increasingly important if we want to help these ecosystems,” they say.

The paper is focused on stony, reef-building corals, which are the ‘ecosystem engineers’ of tropical coral reefs. These corals build the frameworks that provide shelter, food and habitat for an entire ecosystem. When corals are lost, the diversity and abundance of other reef organisms declines, until ultimately the ecosystem collapses.

“Predicting the fate of coral reefs under climate change is subject to our understanding of the ability of corals to mount adaptive responses to environmental change,” says Dr. Torda. “Our paper sets out key research objectives and approaches to address this goal.”

“The time to act is now, as the window of opportunity to save coral reefs is rapidly closing,” he concludes.

The paper titled: “Rapid adaptive responses to climate change in corals” is published today in Nature Climate Change: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3374


* “Acclimatisation” is the response of organisms to environmental change through non-genetic processes. It is different to adaptation, which involves inheritance of a genetic change.



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



Dr Greg Torda
Coral CoE & AIMS
Phone: +33 (6) 31 85 38 40 (GMT +1), from 31 August to 2 September
Email: gergely.torda@jcu.edu.au
Skype: dontorda

Prof Philip Munday
Coral CoE
Phone: +61 (0) 0408 714 794, +61 (0)7 4781 5341 (GMT +10)
Email: philip.munday@jcu.edu.au

Dr Jenni Donelson
Coral CoE
Phone: +61 (0) 402 062 046, +61 (0)7 4781 6291 (GMT +10)
Email: jennifer.donelson@my.jcu.edu.au

Dr Line Bay
AIMS & Coral CoE
Phone: +61 (0) 4753 4179 (GMT +10)
Email: l.bay@aims.gov.au

Prof. Timothy Ravasi
Phone: +966 544 700 067 (GMT +3)
Email: timothy.ravasi@kaust.edu.sa



Ms Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University
Phone: +61 (0) 0428 785 895, +61 (0)7 4781 6067 (GMT +10)
Email: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au

Scientists say good bacteria could be the key to keeping coral healthy, able to withstand the impacts of global warming, and securing the long-term survival of reefs worldwide.

“Healthy corals interact with complex communities of beneficial microbes or ‘good bacteria’,” says Dr. Tracy Ainsworth from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, who led the study.

“It is very likely that these micro-organisms play a pivotal role in the capacity of coral to recover from bouts of bleaching caused by rising temperatures.”

“Facilitating coral survival and promoting coral recovery are growing areas of research for coral reef scientists,” says co-author Dr. Ruth Gates from Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii.

“To do this we need to explore and understand the bacteria that help keep corals and coral reefs healthy.”

Dr. Ainsworth and Dr. Gates have identified new directions for research in understanding coral survival in rapidly changing reef environments.

“We know that lasting changes to the community of beneficial bacteria affects important aspects of the function of host organisms such as humans or corals, including their ability to withstand further stress,” says Dr. Ainsworth.

“Corals rely on good bacteria but crucially we don’t yet understand these microbes well enough to know how they influence coral survival.”

Their latest research has been published in the journal Science, and gives an overview of the current understanding of bacterial communities on corals. It highlights the vital importance of good bacteria to coral health.

The scientists discuss how corals, and coral reefs that survive large-scale changes in the environment over the coming decades, are likely to be very different from those of today.

They say the interaction between corals and good bacteria is crucial to long-term survival.

Their work comes from recent advances in understanding the complexity of the coral’s genetic make-up and the unique bacterial communities that corals maintain.

“Preventing physical contact with corals and maintaining high water quality on reefs during stress events will reduce stress loads on corals and creates the best case scenario for survival and recovery,” says Dr. Gates.



For interviews contact:

Dr. Tracy Ainsworth
Senior Science Fellow
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +1 (808) 683 6106
Email: tracy.ainsworth@jcu.edu.au

Dr. Ruth D. Gates
Director and Researcher, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Phone: +1 (808) 221-1927
Email: http://rgates@hawaii.edu
Kylie Simmonds
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University, Townsville
Phone: +61 (0) 428 785 895
Email: kylie.simmonds1@jcu.edu.au

Extensive coral bleaching on many of the world’s reefs over the past two years has highlighted their susceptibility to thermal stress with global warming already at 0.9C to date.

“Climate is changing rapidly for tropical coral reef ecosystems which are already showing their vulnerability, even with relatively modest increases in global average temperatures observed to date,” says Dr Janice Lough, Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Partner Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville.

The early 2016 mass coral bleaching, that significantly affected the northern Great Barrier Reef of Australia, was linked to the 2015-2016 El Niño. El Niño events typically result in warmer than normal sea surface temperatures across large parts of the tropical oceans – home to coral reefs.

The magnitude of natural climate variability has, however, been compounded by global warming.

A global index of thermal stress (when temperatures exceed the normal seasonal maximum) at 42 reef sites has tripled in intensity since the late 19th century recording 1.3C during the 1877-1878 El Niño, 2.8C in 1997-1998 (another major global bleaching event) and 3.9C in 2015-2016.

“This is clear evidence that global warming is increasing the intensity of thermal stress events on tropical coral reefs,” says Dr. Lough.

Tropical sea surface temperature reconstructions, developed from annually-banded massive coral skeletons, herald a new era for coral reefs. The combination of these results with recent observations, show that 1998 and 2016 were the warmest years for the world’s reefs in at least the past 400 years.

“Over the last 18 months we have observed the impacts of thermal stress causing bleaching of coral reefs across the planet. It is becoming clear that if we are to avoid increases in the number and severity of bleaching events, we need to limit global warming to well below 1.5C.”

Note: Dr. Lough will be speaking on this topic at the ICRS in Hawaii, Thursday 23 June at 8am (HAST). She is available for interviews in the lead up to her talk and after. Please contact Kylie Simmonds (details below)



(Images must carry credits and captions as listed in Dropbox folder)


For interviews please contact:

Dr. Janice Lough
Senior Principal Research Scientist
Australian Institute of Marine Science
Email: j.lough@aims.gov.au


Kylie Simmonds
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Phone: +61 (0) 428 785 895
Email: kylie.simmonds1@jcu.edu.au



When it comes to helping each other out, it turns out that some fish are better at it than previously thought.

New research from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University has found that pairs of rabbitfishes will cooperate and support each other while feeding.

While such behaviour has been documented for highly social birds and mammals, it has previously been believed to be impossible for fishes.

“We found that rabbitfish pairs coordinate their vigilance activity quite strictly, thereby providing safety for their foraging partner,” says Dr Simon Brandl from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

“In other words, one partner stays ‘on guard’ while the other feeds – these fishes literally watch each others’ back,” Dr Brandl says.

“This behaviour is so far unique among fishes and appears to be based on reciprocal cooperation between pair members.”

Reciprocal cooperation, which requires an investment in a partner, which is later reciprocated, is assumed to require complex cognitive and social skills. Skills that fishes have been deemed not to have.

Yet, Dr Brandl says their research shows clear coordination and presents intriguing evidence for reciprocal cooperation between the rabbitfish pairs.

“There has been a long standing debate about whether reciprocal cooperation can exit in animals that lack the highly developed cognitive and social skills found in humans and a few species of birds and primates.” Dr Brandl says.

“By showing that fishes, which are commonly considered to be cold, unsocial, and unintelligent, are capable of negotiating reciprocal cooperative systems, we provide evidence that cooperation may not be as exclusive as previously assumed.”

Co-author, Prof. Bellwood, also from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, says that our perception of fishes as cold scaly automans is slowly changing.

“Our findings should further ignite efforts to understand fishes as highly developed organisms with complex social behaviours,” he says.

“This may also require a shift in how we study and ethically treat fishes.”



Coodinated vigilance provides evidence for direct reciprocity in coral reef fishes, by Simon J. Brandl and David R. Bellwood is published in the journal, Nature Scientific Reports (Link when we have it)


Rabbitfish images – credit: Jordan Casey



Dr Simon Brandl – simon.brandl@my.jcu.edu.au or simonjbrandl@gmail.com, +1 443 454 3579 (Please note Dr Brandl is currently in the United States and is on EDT)

Prof David Bellwood – david.bellwood@jcu.edu.au, (best first contact)

+61 (0) 7 4781447 (Australia)

+33 7 52245044 (Europe after Sept 26)

Eleanor Gregory, (communications) – eleanor.gregory@jcu.edu.au, +61 (0) 428 785 895


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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