People and ecosystems

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


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

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


Responding to a changing world

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

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Studies

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

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

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

Ocean acidification could lead to smaller, more porous and malformed skeletons in coral recruits by 2100 say a team of scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the University of Western Australia.

“New coral recruits are only about 1 mm in diameter and so they are more vulnerable to stressors like predation, overgrowth and damage from storms” explains Taryn Foster, lead author of the paper, which was published this week in the journal Science Advances, an online journal of Science. “They need to be able to build robust skeletons and do this quickly, in order for them to move out of these small and vulnerable size classes. Unfortunately, ocean acidification is making this task more difficult.”

“We mimicked the oceanic conditions predicted to occur under a ‘business-as-usual’ emissions scenario, elevating both the water temperature and CO2 levels. We then used 3D X-ray microscopy and scanning electron microscopy to both visualize and quantify changes in the skeletal formation and found that coral recruits were unable to build normal skeletons under acidified conditions.”

“Not only did we record reduced overall skeletal deposition, but we also observed a number of deformities in the skeletons grown under high CO2. These ranged from gaps, fractures and disrupted symmetry to large sections of missing skeleton. We also saw deep pitting and a corroded-looking skeletal surface in the high CO2 corals.”

“One encouraging and surprising finding was that elevated temperature didn’t seem to exacerbate the effects of high CO2. Instead we saw the opposite effect, with elevated temperature having a mitigative effect under acidified conditions. But we think this response will only be seen in sub-tropical and temperate corals such as those used in this study, which were from the sub-tropical Houtman Abrolhos Islands.”

“This study exposes for the first time, changes to the structure of the coral recruit skeleton under predicted ocean acidification. Using 3D X-ray microscopy has made it possible to measure internal structures, volume and look at each individual X-ray slice; things that are impossible to do using conventional 2D imaging methods. It also makes it much easier to communicate the changes that ocean acidification could cause in these tiny animals, which are essential for replenishing the reef and recovery after disturbances.”

The co-authors for the paper are Assistant Professor James Falter and Professor Malcolm McCulloch from theARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and UWA’s School of Earth and Environment, and  Associate Professor Peta Clode from UWA’s Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis. The project was funded by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The paper “Ocean acidification causes structural deformities in juvenile coral skeletons” by Taryn Foster, James Falter, Malcolm McCulloch and Peta Clode is published in the journal Science Advances.

Professor Malcolm McCulloch
T: +61 0 457 939 937
E: malcolm.mcculloch@uwa.edu.au

Associate Professor Peta Clode
T: +61 8 6488 8098
E: peta.clode@uwa.edu.au

More Information:
Taryn Foster
E: taryn.foster@research.uwa.edu

Taryn Foster, James L. Falter, Malcolm T. McCulloch, Peta L. Clode (2016). Ocean acidification causes structural deformities in juvenile coral skeletons. Science Advances.

A group of acclaimed scientists from The University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) will go where few others have gone before when they set out to unlock the secrets of a deep ocean canyon off Perth the size of the USA’s Grand Canyon.

A UWA team headed by Coral CoE Deputy Director, Professor Malcolm McCulloch, together with researchers from the Western Australian Museum, CSIRO and the Institute of Marine Sciences in Italy, will be among the first to explore life in the vast Perth Canyon, about 50km off Fremantle.

The underwater canyon formed over tens of millions of years and extends from the continental shelf edge of Western Australia to depths of more than four kilometres to the abyssal sea floor.  Major up-swelling of essential nutrients in the canyon makes it a global marine hotspot, attracting blue whales and other large fauna that migrate to the waters seasonally to feed.  Despite being so close to Perth and Fremantle, little is known about life in its deep abyss.

Professor McCulloch and his team will lead the research expedition on board the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel, R/V Falkor, during a 12-day trip departing on Sunday, 1 March.

Researchers will use a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to discover and collect deep-sea corals and sea water from the canyon.  Chemical and biological analyses of these rare samples will provide critical new data about the canyon’s marine ecosystems.  This will help determine the likely future impacts of warming seas and ocean acidification on the deep-sea life and waters in these remote and previously inaccessible habitats.

Professor McCulloch said that ROV exploration had never before been carried out there, making it a voyage of genuine discovery.

“The deep ocean is the largest habitat on earth but it’s the world’s least explored environment – we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deep sea floor,” Professor McCulloch said.

“The Perth Canyon is a great unknown.  It is the largest submarine canyon along Australia’s shelf, less than a stone’s throw from WA’s capital city, yet has never been subject to rigorous scientific investigation.

“We plan to unlock its secrets using modern tools such as an ROV to collect samples, then utilise a suite of geochemical tools to investigate its longer-term history and future capacity to cope with the pressures of climate change.”

He said despite the challenges of exploration in such remote environments, it was important to research such habitats because of their key role in the Earth’s climate system and in supplying the essential nutrients to sustain life in the oceans.

“By understanding these deep-water environments and their inhabitants’ sensitivity to ocean acidification, the expedition will provide important new data on the ocean’s role in sequestering CO2 and the degree to which coral species in the Perth Canyon are able to adapt to changing conditions.”

He said the team hoped to answer the larger question of how animals that calcify skeletons are likely to be affected under future climate change scenarios, and the ability of the deeper oceans to more permanently sequester rapidly rising levels of atmospheric CO2.

“We hope to not only reveal the ocean’s living treasures, but also to establish how critical seawater parameters necessary to sustain life are changing due to the combined forces of ocean warming and CO2-driven ocean acidification,” he said.

Besides giving researchers the chance to better understand the Perth Canyon, the work should also help to better understand the likely threats to other deep ecosystems in the region and similar environments worldwide.

Other UWA researchers involved in the expedition include Dr Jim Falter, Dr Julie Trotter, Professor Chari Pattiaratchi and research associate Lara Garcia-Corral.

To find out how they fare, visit the Schmidt Ocean Institute daily blog.

The project is being funded by the Australian Research Council, Schmidt Ocean Institute and The University of Western Australia.

Media references

Professor Malcolm McCulloch (UWA School of Earth and Environment and The UWA Oceans Institute)  (+61 8) 6488 3074
David Stacey (UWA Media and Public Affairs Manager)  (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716


Australian Research Council Pandora

Partner Research Institutions

Partner Partner Partner Partner
Coral Reef Studies

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

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