Chapter Two

Understanding the Reef

The Australian Institute of Marine Science

The Great Barrier Reef is an incredibly complex ecosystem with much yet to be discovered. Research stations like the Australian Museum's Lizard Island and The University of Queensland's Heron Island are working every day to decode the secrets of the reef and uncover the pressures that threaten it. In Townsville, Queensland, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) focuses its cutting-edge research on a wide variety of areas, from exploring the resilience of coral to investigating the creatures invading the reef. And on Lizard Island, a family is on the front line against a most unwelcome resident...

The Invasion of the Starfish

Crown of Thorns Starfish are normally a healthy addition to the reef ecosystem, they feed on the more dominant coral species and help maintain diversity. But in certain conditions, they can explode in numbers to become deadly scourges of the reef.

Whilst the Crown of Thorns Starfish are larvae they are vulnerable to being eaten but overfishing has devastated their natural predators, vastly increasing the numbers of starfish that make it to adulthood. And it isn't just overfishing, in the river systems of North Eastern Queensland, AIMS are monitoring another, more insidious reason, for the invasion.

Launch Interaction

The Acid Effect...

Increases in carbon dioxide emissions are making our oceans more acidic and this makes it more difficult for calcium-based organisms like coral and sand dollars to make their limestone skeletons.

Click 'Reef Time' to see a demonstration of a strong acid affecting the limestone skeleton of a Sand Dollar.

What is coral bleaching?

Corals are sensitive to ocean acidity, but they're also sensitive to sea temperature. If it rises too high, the tiny polyps expel the energy-harvesting algae living within them, turning the corals a deathly white — a process known as 'bleaching.' If the temperatures remain too high for too long, bleached corals will eventually die.

See for yourself

Ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures are clearly beginning to take their toll on the world's coral reefs, with global coral bleaching events a visible sign that all is not well in our planet's oceans.

But is this pattern unprecedented? Researchers at The University of Queensland are using advanced technology to find out how coral reefs have responded to climate change in the past, which could be crucial in understanding how they will fare in the future.

Knowing how corals responded to changing conditions in the past can inform us of how they might respond in the future. With the reef changing so quickly, is it possible to speed up their natural adaptation process?

Next Chapter

The Global Reef
The Wreck of the SS Yongala

See live weather patterns on the Great Barrier Reef

David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef ©Atlantic Productions 2015

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