29th June 2016
This month, a three-year study was published in nature research journal Nature Communications that has shed some light on the instrumental nature of microbes that live on coral reefs. Although the study was conducted on a reef in the Florida Keys in the United States, its findings could have serious implications for the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
The study also looked at how climate change, overfishing and pollution can disrupt ecological communities and destabilise the natural defences of coral. According to Dr Rebecca Thurber, Oregon State University's lead author on the study, healthy reefs are able to easily recover from minor injuries like fish bites, however when nutrient levels were elevated 66% of coral died following a fish bite. This shows that corals become vulnerable to normal events in the presence of nutrient pollution.
While the study did focus on ecosystems in the Caribbean, James Cook University's Dr Jon Brodie believes it can also inform threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Coral cover is already declining due to coral bleaching and, particularly in tropical reefs, warming ocean temperatures are already having an effect. While the Great Barrier Reef weather is known for being warm and sunny, it appears the famous coral does not enjoy the warmer ocean temperatures so much.
In fact the elevated temperatures have been shown to generate more disease-causing bacteria which can make the coral less resilient to disruptive events like bad weather such as cyclones. Western Australian Museum's Dr Zoe Richards said the study shows how easy it is for innocuous interactions like fish feeding on coral can turn deadly for the reef, particularly in summer in polluted and overfished habitats.
A new Queensland study is giving scientists hope and moving ever closer to ensuring the long-term health of the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs around the world. Led by Tracy Ainsworth, from James Cook University's ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies the study shows the benefits 'good bacteria' or microbes can have on keeping coral reefs healthy as they deal with the changes associated with global warming.
Published in reputable journal Science, the study also found that these microbes can indeed play an integral role in aiding in the recovery of reefs affected by coral bleaching due to rising temperatures. Given down rapidly reef environments are changing and the damage the Great Barrier Reef is currently sustaining, Dr Ainsworth believes this new direction in research is imperative to saving the Great Barrier Reef.