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Cold corals shine light on ocean history

30
Jan 2007

The corals of South Australia are throwing new light on the history of Australia’s southern oceans, revealing details of past climates and human impact on the seas.

Sam Burgess of The Australian National University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, is completing a PhD on these little- known South Australian corals, proving their importance to issues of climate change and ocean health.

A large coral colony in South Australian waters

“Most people are surprised to learn that there are large corals in these colder waters,” says Ms. Burgess. “They think corals only occur in the warmer waters of the tropics,” she says.

Although most are amazed that corals exist in southern Australia, Sam has treated the areas off the coast of Adelaide and the Spencer Gulf as her workplace for the past 4 years. Dealing with these corals along with sea lions, a blue-ringed octopus and an over-protective cuttlefish are all in a day’s work for the young scientist.

“There is a lot more diversity in temperate reefs and cold water corals than people expect,” says Burgess. “This coral species occur sporadically as an encrusting growth form on the Great Barrier Reef but in the temperate waters [of southern Australia] they are the dominant coral species,” she says.

The stony corals studied in Ms. Burgess’ research occur in large boulders, known as “bommies”. Despite being up to 2 meters high these bommies are rarely seen due to poor water visibility in temperate waters.

The corals’ location in temperate and cooler waters is helping scientists to build a clearer picture of the whole of the world’s oceans as they were in the past.

With most coral studies focused on tropical waters and areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, there are abundant records of the ocean’s history in these areas, leaving a gaping hole in the record for the cooler waters.

Thanks to Ms. Burgess’ PhD study these corals can be studied to provide information on the history of these previously unstudied colder waters.

By drilling out small samples of the coral bommies and studying their chemical content Ms. Burgess’ has found ways to read the temperature and contamination of the waters back hundreds of years.

So far the corals have shown signs of increases in the oceans temperature confirming a 1.5 degrees rise in water temperatures over the last 130 years, which has been shown in other coral reef studies of the tropics.

“[The study] helps add to the knowledge gained from research conducted in the tropics by filling in the holes in our understanding of the ocean’s chemistry in the past,“ says Burgess.

The corals also show signs of contamination from human activities, with traces of some chemicals and heavy metals increasing since industrial development in the area.

These findings, from Ms. Burgess’ PhD study, will be published in scientific journals in the future.

In the meantime Sam Burgess hopes that her study can help “highlight how diverse Australia’s marine environment is and the range of species that can tell us important things about our past”.

Sam’s research was partly funded by the SA R&D Institute.

More information:
Sam Burgess, PhD Student, CoECRS, +61 2 612 53424 mob: +61 0421 665 841
Professor Malcolm McCulloch, Deputy Director, CoECRS, +61 2 6125 9969, +61 0439 490 282
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jane O’Dwyer, Media Manager ANU, +61 2 6125 5001

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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