Hunt for ‘super corals’ aims to help Great Barrier Reef survive climate change

An unusual mix of researchers from Australia and abroad will set sail later this month in a bid to locate and then propagate “super corals” that appear best able to survive bleaching caused by climate change.

The 21-day expedition is the first to be launched by the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, a non-profit group that raised funds for the venture from the tourism industry and crowd-sourcing to find research gaps.

Researchers will be studying which corals have survived the heatwaves best, and why.
Researchers will be studying which corals have survived the heatwaves best, and why. Photo: GBR Legacy

It will leave Port Douglas on November 15 and head as far north as the Torres Strait, examining areas that have had little more than aerial surveys since mass bleaching first took place in the 2015-16 summer.

“This was the section that was most hard hit, with some reefs suffering up to 90 per cent coral cover lost,” said Dean Miller, a marine biologist and GBR Legacy director.

Coral bleaching off Port Douglas earlier this year.
Coral bleaching off Port Douglas earlier this year. Photo: Dean Miller, GBR Legacy

Neal Cantin, a research scientist specialising in coral bleaching at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said the northern reefs were “a very challenging area to get access to”.

Dr Cantin, who will participate in the voyage, said one purpose was to find the “super corals” that had appear to have fared the best through the back-to-back bleaching – when stressed corals expel the algae they depend on for most of their energy and colour,
“Those colonies definitely have something special to survive such an extreme heat event,” he said.

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Apart from attempting to identify the molecular or traits that helped certain species withstand the past two summers, the researchers will attempt to collect material from the upcoming coral spawning events, bringing it back to AIMS research facility in Townsville for potential breeding.

Hayley Morris, an executive director of the Northern Escape Collection – the tourist group that serves as the main sponsor with a $160,000 donation and provided the 32-metre research vessel – said many people involved in the industry were passionate about the reef’s future.

Image of coral taken in  March 2016, left,  at Lizard Island, how it was transformed after death, two months later.
Image of coral taken in March 2016, left, at Lizard Island, how it was transformed after death, two months later. Photo: Catlin Seaview Survey

“[The bleaching] really impacts them – it’s their life,” Ms Morris said, adding “it’s quite difficult to get funding in the applied research space.”

Ms Morris said tourism groups were often torn between raising concerns about the reef’s health that might stop visitors coming, and speaking out so that “something gets done” to address the threat from a warming climate and other challenges.

Dr Miller said there are some signs that the Great Barrier Reef may face a third year of bleaching over the coming summer.

“We are starting to see the first signs of bleaching again in Port Douglas already,” he said, adding cumulative stresses on corals may mean bleaching might occur at lower temperatures than the last couple of summers.

(See chart below from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing the areas where there is a 60 per cent chance of bleaching this summer.)

 

Dr Miller said GBR Legacy hopes the philanthropically funded venture’s results – to be released publicly in Port Douglas on December 8 – will be added to in coming years.

“We hope this will be the first of many,” he said.

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