Meet Our Reef Warriors

Proudly supported by

  Last updated May 31, 2017 at 11:42 am

Topics:  

It’s one of the hot environmental issues of our time: the loss of the world’s reefs. Lauren Smith looks into who’s rescuing these iconic habitats and finds a swag of inspiring Aussie researchers hard at work. 


I gulped in a lungful of oxygen, kicked my legs and dived down. Out of the inky black beneath me rose a huge spotted blue creature, as long as a school bus. I swam beside it, desperate to reach out and run my fingers along its ridged skin. But I kept a respectful distance, knowing the strength in its huge pectoral fins and sweeping tail was enough to break my arm.


That awesome experience with a whale shark was the first time I’d snorkelled on a reef – in this case, the stunning Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia – and from that moment I was hooked. (Apologies for the fishy pun!) In the years since then, it seems like every new story or study published about reefs – in Australia and elsewhere – warns about their demise. Ningaloo and her massive sister on the other side of the country, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), as well as fringing reefs along our continent’s north coast and the rocky reefs of the south coast are all under threat.


But this story doesn’t have to end badly. There’s an army of researchers out there working on the frontline to make sure these extraordinary habitats survive. So come and meet some of Australia’s reef warriors and be inspired to join them.


MICROPLASTIC MISSION


University of Western Australia marine scientist Dr Harriet Paterson is investigating a pollution problem the world is only beginning to get its head around – microplastics. These are particles of plastic smaller than a millimetre, so we hardly notice them, but there’s mounting evidence that they’re particularly harmful to the animals living in marine habitats such as reefs.


Dr Paterson is one of the leaders of a survey trying to determine the extent of microplastic pollution along the south-west WA coastline. It’s a project with a significant citizen science component; enlisting the help of primary school groups from Esperance to Jerramungup, to visit beach sites, take sand samples and identify what microplastics are present.


Plastic pollution generally in marine environments is a growing problem and Dr Paterson has previously spent three years working on how microplastics affect seabirds. “We keep producing [plastic] because our lifestyles rely on it and it keeps getting into the ocean,” she explains. “We are only just beginning to understand the biological consequences.”


Her work is part of the beginning of a shift in the global understanding of plastic pollution. “Dealing with plastics in the environment is going to be an important issue in the future. There will be jobs that we have not yet thought about that will be developed to tackle the effect of plastics,” Dr Paterson says. “Engineers will need to develop new materials that can replace plastic and are environmentally safe. Other engineers will need to figure out how to remove plastics from the environment.


Psychologists will need to facilitate behaviour change in a global population that has a dependence on plastics. And biologists will need to help wildlife and plants get past the harmful effects of plastic.”


TESTING A TELL-TALE ALGAE


The main threat our reefs face is climate change and the associated range of dangers that brings. These include rising water temperature, rising water levels, water acidification and an increased frequency of severe weather, all of which are severe perils for reef ecosystems.


Over on the other side of the country from Ningaloo Dr Emma Kennedy, a postdoctoral research fellow at Griffith University, is working on the GBR to monitor the impact of ocean acidification on a particular type of algae. It’s known as crustose coralline algae, or CCA, and it’s particularly sensitive to acidification, which is a major consequence of increased carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere: the acidity of marine waters increases as our oceans absorb more and more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


Because CCA skeletons dissolve more easily under acidic conditions than coral skeletons, this algae acts as a useful bioindicator of when things are going wrong. Just as miners in underground coal mines once relied on sick or dying canaries to indicate when a mine’s air was becoming poisonous, researchers can rely on this algae to tell them when the surrounding water is becoming acidic enough to affect marine life.


The Griffith Uni project involves measuring CCA skeleton growth rates to first determine a ‘normal’ background level. This then enables the researchers to detect and respond to sudden changes in acidification levels, giving them time to act before it’s too late.


NEVER GIVE UP 


Some experts are saying that it may already be too late to save our reefs. But as one of the many scientists and engineers now working to solve the looming issues, Griffith University’s Dr Emma Kennedy is optimistic.


“I do get a bit jealous when I hear stories from the older generations about how huge and colourful the corals were, and how many big and beautiful fish they saw when they were young,” she admits. “Some professors have started saying that there’s no hope, and that we should just enjoy the reefs while we still can, and then use them as an example of the first ecosystem that was lost due to human carelessness and overexploitation.


“But I have to be optimistic otherwise I wouldn’t be able to come to work each day. Humanity is in a very unique position where we understand the risks of climate change and have the technology in our grasp to do something about it.”


ROBOTS AND REEFS


The University of Sydney’s Reef in 3D project is being carried out by a multidisciplinary team that comprises the usual types of scientists you’d expect to see working in an ocean habitat, like marine biologists and coral reef ecologists. But it also includes some more unlikely experts, including researchers in robotics and stereo imaging. Together they are developing complex 3D maps of Australian reefs using robots.


The more complex a coral reef, the more resilient it tends to be as the climate changes. Using robots to map the seafloor in 3D allows changes to be measured over larger areas than traditionally possible, and that means that scientists will be able to react faster to problems as they arise. Professor Maria Byrne, who heads the project, explains: “Reefs have a huge suite of species, all with different functions. It’s like different pieces in a big jigsaw puzzle. If you miss some of the pieces, you actually start reducing resilience. You might be able to lose one species, because the others might be able to fill in the role – they could be herbivores cropping seaweed or damselfishes keeping the corals in good nick, but if you start losing too many… that’s when you start having resiliency being impaired.”


These new 3D maps are being assembled through geolocation. This means that as repeat surveys are undertaken by robots, autonomously operated vehicles and divers, researchers studying phenomena such as coral bleaching will be able to compare current and historical maps. And that will mean researchers will be able to identify and understand what changes came first and how they led to other consequences.


SUNSCREEN SOLUTION


Melbourne University chemical engineer Professor David Solomon is working on an unusual answer to the increasing levels of UV reaching our reefs due to climate change. Prof Solomon, an expert in polymer chemistry, is leading a team investigating the possibility of protecting the coral on reefs with a type of sunscreen. It’s an idea based on a technology already used in dams to minimise evaporation – and would mean that a biodegradable surface film, just one molecule thick, would be positioned on top of the water to protect a reef.


COMBATING COTS 


A particularly prickly problem (sorry again for bad puns!) for Australia’s reefs is the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS). This is a predatory starfish with a voracious appetite for coral polyps. Every so often its numbers boom and decimate reefs. For a long time COTS populations were controlled by divers who searched for the starfish and killed them by injecting them with a toxin. It’s known as the one-shot method and although it’s an effective way of killing the starfish it’s slow and hasn’t kept up with the most recent outbreak, which is presently wreaking havoc on parts of the GBR. Dr Matthew Dunbabin and Dr Feras Dayoub from the Queensland University of Technology have taken what seems like a sci-fi approach to the problem and built an independent starfish-killer that cruises the sea floor, scanning for starfish.


Known as the COTSbot, it’s a submarine-like robot that patrols about a metre off the seafloor. When it recognises a starfish – which it does through a state-of-the-art image recognition system – a target comes up on its screen, an injector arm shoots out and it injects the starfish with toxin.


But this is just one part of a multi-pronged assault on COTS. Dr Peter Thomas-Hall, a chemist and technical officer at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Queensland, is trying a different approach; enlisting the help of a natural predator of COTS – the triton trumpet shell. “Not only does the triton trumpet shell eat the COTS, the COTS are petrified of the triton,” Dr Thomas-Hall explains. “As soon as the COTS smells a triton, they start running away.”


The triton trumpet shell was heavily fished on the GBR right up until the 1970s and these carnivorous molluscs are now rare. Using the few specimens he’s been able to locate, Dr Thomas-Hall is trying to identify what it is that the triton produces that seems to so effectively repel the starfish. Once he’s worked that out, he’ll then focus on chemically synthesising it in a way that researchers will be able to use it to reduce COTS’ populations.


Part of his work is also focused on increasing production of the triton trumpet shell with the aim of re-building the species’ numbers on reefs where it once flourished.


Written by Lauren Smith – As Australian Geographic’s education editor, Lauren is doing her bit to save the world by writing about it. She spends all her free time in the sea.


Images



  • Scuba images supplied by Griffith University

  • Matt Dunbabin and Feras Dayoub, COTSbot robot image supplied by QUT Marketing and Communcation/Erika Fish

  • Triton Trumpet shell – provided by James St John


Originally published in Ultimate Careers magazine. Read the magazine and find your Ultimate Careers here.


Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to get all the latest science.




About the Author

Kelly Wong
Contributing editor for News + Events and the online producer at Australia's Science Channel. I have a background in immunology, food blogging, volunteering, and social media. I'm passionate about creating communities on social media and getting them excited about science. I enjoy good food and I am on an eternal mission to find the best ice cream. Find me on Twitter @kellyyyllek

Published By

Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


Featured Videos

Placeholder
Etienne Rastoin-Laplane - What's fishy about the Galapagos?
Placeholder
Kit Prendergast - Flowers to keep native bees buzzing
Placeholder
Rebecca Wellard - Eavesdropping on killer whales
Placeholder
Hossein Tavassoli - Mending broken hearts
Placeholder
Dilan Seckiner - Forensic gait analysis
Placeholder
Samuel Bladwell - A new spin on electronics
Placeholder
Sathana Dushyanthen - The double-edged cancer sword
Placeholder
Dwan Price - Nuts and Guts
Placeholder
Catriona Nguyen-Robertson - Exercise takes your immune system for a ride
Placeholder
Thimo Ruethers - The deadly danger of crocs on a plate
Placeholder
Amanda Tauber - Slamming the brakes on metastatic cancer
Placeholder
Hayley Teasdale – The ball that prevents falls (FameLab Australia 2019 Runner-up)
Placeholder
In the Shadow of a Black Hole
Placeholder
In Class With... Monica Gagliano
Placeholder
In Class With... Brian Cox
Placeholder
Start your FameLab 2019 journey now
Placeholder
Nural Cokcetin - It all starts with FameLab
Placeholder
Erinn Fagan-Jeffries - It all starts with FameLab
Placeholder
Ronald Yu - It all starts with FameLab
Placeholder
Noushin Nasiri - It all starts with FameLab
Placeholder
Grassroots
Placeholder
What is machine learning?
Placeholder
Mythbusting artificial intelligence with expert Anton van den Hengel
Placeholder
Using machine learning to predict medical outcomes
Placeholder
KCLOC
Placeholder
Nature Calls
Placeholder
Mexican Fishing Bats
Placeholder
Bittersweet
Placeholder
Timelapse
Placeholder
Invisible Blanket
Placeholder
Look
Placeholder
The Anomalies: Venom Race
Placeholder
Science Meets Making
Placeholder
Spiral
Placeholder
Looking Out There
Placeholder
Protectors of the Penguins
Placeholder
Astroturf
Placeholder
Virtual Humans
Placeholder
Rancheros del Jaguar
Placeholder
Searching For Dark Matter
Placeholder
Finding prehistoric mega-shark fossils on Victoria's coast
Placeholder
The Grandfather of computers
Placeholder
James Cameron talks science
Placeholder
In Class With.....David Suzuki - The Environment
Placeholder
In Class With.....David Suzuki - Career
Placeholder
Sustainable water use with Doug Green
Placeholder
Why is Indigenous science important?
Placeholder
Vanessa Pirotta - Using drones to collect whale snot (FameLab Australia 2018 Winner)
Placeholder
Toby Hendy - Poking Plants (FameLab Australia 2018 Runner-Up)
Placeholder
Muthu Vignesh Vellayappan - Groovy Patches (FameLab Australia 2018 Audience Choice)
Placeholder
Taryn Laubenstein - The Tail of Two Fishes
Placeholder
Richard Charlesworth - Coeliac disease diagnosis can be a pain in the posterior
Placeholder
Pegah Maasoumi - Solar Windows
Placeholder
James Wong - Breathing while you hop: How do kangaroos do it?
Placeholder
Ben McAllister - The ORGAN Experiment: Shining a light on dark matter
Placeholder
Mortaza Rezae - Empowering beautiful minds
Placeholder
Zane Stromberga - Can allergy drugs beat bladder disease?
Placeholder
Working In.....Art - Astrophotography
Placeholder
What's the best way to move - springs or muscles?
Placeholder
FameLab Australia Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
Saving lives with platypus milk
Placeholder
Australian astronomers witness death throes of a cocooned star
Placeholder
How Australia's politicians see our future in space
Placeholder
Keeping satellites in the loop
Placeholder
Tim Flannery talks about COP
Placeholder
Tim Jarvis & Tim Flannery talk Climate Change
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - robo baby, university rankings, and cancer on circadian rhythms
Placeholder
From chocolate factory to surgery - the milliDelta robot
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science: video games, low tech transition windows and a new CRISPR technique
Placeholder
Science lessons useful in Art Restoration career
Placeholder
Are drones the future of racing?
Placeholder
The future of esports according to the experts
Placeholder
Seeing is believing with artist Eugenie Lee
Placeholder
The human impace of Art Science collaboration
Placeholder
Follow your Interests in Robotics
Placeholder
Zoz on 3D Printing
Placeholder
Flavia Tata Nardini on women in engineering
Placeholder
Flavia Tata Nardini on the future of the internet
Placeholder
Explore the ocean floor and Antarctic biodiversity
Placeholder
Follow your interests in Medical Research
Placeholder
Artists on Science
Placeholder
What is Space Archaeology?
Placeholder
Follow your Interests
Placeholder
Scientists on Art
Placeholder
3D Printing in Medical Research
Placeholder
Ethical Issues
Placeholder
Problem Solving - Robotics at Dermatec
Placeholder
Problem Solving with CSI
Placeholder
Tamarah King - Earthquake Geologist
Placeholder
True or False with Bajo and Rad BONUS ROUND
Placeholder
True or False with Bajo & Rad
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - Cats vs Dogs
Placeholder
FameLab 2018 - Get Involved!
Placeholder
Nural Cokcetin - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Erinn Fagan-Jeffries - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Noushin Nasiri - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Ronald Yu - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Alan Duffy's Top 5 Science Communication Tips
Placeholder
A Judge's Top Tips for FameLab Australia
Placeholder
Brain Candy - Why, Why, Why Michael Stevens?
Placeholder
The Past, Present, and Future of Malaria
Placeholder
This is a video of poo pills being made!
Placeholder
Mind Games - Sports Psychology
Placeholder
Fuel to Win - Sports Nutrition
Placeholder
Fifty years since Australia beat the world to space
Placeholder
ECR Network: Talk Your Science with Alan Duffy
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - chimps, klompen, and clouds
Placeholder
Our robot medicine future - heart huggers and micro biohybrids
Placeholder
Six Awkward Cancer Questions
Placeholder
How do you tell if a whale is left-handed?
Placeholder
She Flies - Turning Girls into Drone Pilots
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - Magnetic Fabric, Cancer Treatments, and Echolocation
Placeholder
The Science of Sexuality
Placeholder
Sailing Through Space with Bill Nye
Placeholder
Using Sports Science to Help Olympic Athletes
Placeholder
Three and a Half Minutes of Top Shelf Career Advice
Placeholder
New Space Tech with Andrea Boyd
Placeholder
Kelly Meets the Mars Curiosity Rover
Placeholder
Hearts, Opera, and Tough Conversations - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Bill Nye on Science, Girls, and Saving the World!
Placeholder
2017 Prime Minister's Prizes for Science Part 2
Placeholder
2017 Prime Minister's Prizes for Science Part 1
Placeholder
Who Decides the Law in Space?
Placeholder
Scientists Watch Collision That Created Gravitational Waves
Placeholder
Getting Cold Feet Leads to a Whole New Career
Placeholder
ECR Network - Why Every Scientist Should Be on Twitter - The Benefits
Placeholder
ECR Network - Why Every Scientist Should Be On Twitter - The Fears
Placeholder
Live Podcast - Life Vs Science
Placeholder
Origami Robots, Babies, and Kidneys - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Namira Salim and the Zero-G Peace Summit
Placeholder
Elon Musk's Mars Plan: Expert Analysis
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Thursday
Placeholder
My Time in Space
Placeholder
IAC TV Daily Broadcast - Wednesday
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Wednesday
Placeholder
IAC TV Daily broadcast - Tuesday
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Tuesday
Placeholder
IAC TV daily broadcast - Monday
01:00:41
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Monday
Placeholder
Live from IAC 2017
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Technology Rewrites History
Placeholder
Methamphetamine - Gateway Drug to Parkinson's Disease
Placeholder
Concussion, 3D BioPrinting, and The Universe - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Pulsars, Clearwigs, and Pacemakers - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Revolutions - The Quest to Transform HPV Racing
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Hurricane Irma Blows Away Tesla's Rip Off
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Limit of Your Lifespan
Placeholder
The Recipient
Placeholder
Think Like a Scientist: Natural Selection in an Outbreak
Placeholder
The End of Snow
Placeholder
The Next Rembrandt
Placeholder
The Discarded
Placeholder
The Spectators
Placeholder
Test Tube Babes
Placeholder
Pangolins in Peril- A Story of Rare Scales
Placeholder
Rock Art Project
Placeholder
Pork.0
Placeholder
OWSIA (Darkened Water)
Placeholder
Nex
Placeholder
Northern Quolls
Placeholder
Dish Life
Placeholder
At Street Level
Placeholder
Custom Love
Placeholder
Adrift
Placeholder
A Story from Space
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Most Dangerous Thing in Boxing May Be the Gloves
Placeholder
ECR Network 2017 – Get Interdisciplinary!
01:27:00
Placeholder
Chris Hadfield: The Future of Space Exploration
Placeholder
Chris Hadfield: Life After Space
Placeholder
Chris Hadfield: Life in Space
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Let's Make Algae Australian of the Year
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Australia's Energy Showdown
Placeholder
Nine Awkward Astrophysicist Questions
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - There's No Such Thing as an Exercise Pill
Placeholder
National Science Week Awards Show
Placeholder
ECR Network 2017 - Grant Writing Workshop
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Your 5 Step Asteroid Success Plan
Placeholder
National Science Week Forecast
Placeholder
Open Doors. Open Future. Open Day.
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Lose a Little to Gain Millions
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Crowd Sourcing Origami Astronaut Protection
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - T-Rex's Prehistoric Power Walk
Placeholder
True or False with Kale Brock
Placeholder
The Grandfather Paradox
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Hidden Heroes Tackling Mozzies
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Emergency AI Assistance
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Frogs Forever, Dinosaurs Never!
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Australia, Let's Go To Space
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Welcome to the Microbiome, Archaea!
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Roos Blindside Driverless Cars
Placeholder
Biodiversity of Antarctica Under Threat From Increase In Ice-Free Areas
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Future of the Census
Placeholder
Tell Me! Brian Cox
Placeholder
Crash, Burn, Tweak, Repeat
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Humans Just Got Older and Wiser
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Cheers to Brain Health?
Placeholder
Gene Therapy Could Cure Allergies
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - iHeart Hacking
Placeholder
Ridiculology - New Hubble
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Trees Alone Can't Save Us
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Earth's Accidental Force Field
Placeholder
Dinosaurs on the Big Screen
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Farewell MP3
Placeholder
Kids Beat Grown-ups on Pneumonia Vaccines
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Booger Conspiracy
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 National Final - Part 2
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 National Final - Part 1
Placeholder
2017 Budget Response
Placeholder
What Are Animal Weapons?
Placeholder
If You Love Both Art and Science, Be a Scientific Illustrator
Placeholder
Getting Personal With Skinks
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - CSIRO Email Leaks
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 Western Australia Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - New Hope for Premmies
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Britain Goes Coal-Free
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Naked Mole-Rats (SFW)
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Easter Reminders
Placeholder
Meet Andrea Boyd - Space Flight Controller
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Sperm Drug Smugglers
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 New South Wales Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
The Science of Fiction
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Liquorice Poisoning
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Crowdsourcing Science
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 Queensland Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - SpaceX Preps for Relaunch
Placeholder
Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome Breakthrough
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Surviving a Media Storm
Placeholder
Will This Aussie Team Win the Race to Create the Ultimate Malaria Vaccine?
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - New Dino Family Tree
Placeholder
How to fix things with Kyle Wiens
Placeholder
Repair or replace? iFixit co-founder Kyle Wiens
Placeholder
Special Investigation - No Alternative to Cancer
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Raspberry Pi is Number 3 Best-Selling Computer
Placeholder
If reefs can't adapt, are they doomed?
Placeholder
Art, Music, Science, Society - Sir Tim Smit Has Thoughts On It All
Placeholder
Assembling the Best Team (according to Sir Tim Smit)
Placeholder
What's up with the Rogue Ginger?
Placeholder
Make Me A Martian
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Recognising the Ethical Dilemma in Facial Tracking Software
Placeholder
Science Communication Around the Globe
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Elon to the Rescue
Placeholder
Sing Us a Song, Spaceman!
Placeholder
Feather Map Of Australia Citizen Science Project
Placeholder
Tim Jarvis vs Mountain: Neuroscience
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Don't Pee in the Pool!
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - A New Organ That's as Old as You Are
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Australia's Bill of Sexual Health
Placeholder
Budget 2016 - The Science Forecast
Placeholder
Ideas Boom - What the Innovation Statement Means for You