Coral gives insight into climate change

Headshot of Elise Van Aken
Elise Van AkenThe West Australian
VideoThe crystal clear waters of the Southern Great Barrier Reef are home to many species of wildlife, corals and sea cucumbers.

A new species of coral discovered in waters off the coast in the State’s north offers insight into which species are adapting in areas where climate change has had a severe impact.

A team of scientists from the WA Museum and Japanese and Australian universities discovered Heliopora hiberniana,named after the Hibernia Reef in the Kimberley where it was found.

WA Museum research associate and Curtin University research fellow Zoe Richards said the species was discovered in a part of the world where climate change had severely disturbed the scleractinan or hard-coral communities.

“Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystems on the planet,” she said. “However, climate change and widespread bleaching events over the last two decades have caused hard corals to retreat, threatening to destabilise critical biological and ecosystem functions such as reef building.”

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The new species of reef-building Octocoral was from a family of corals that were commonly called blue coral, and the discovery was significant because the highly conserved blue-coral family has not changed since the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago.

Dr Richards said field observations indicated individuals of the new species were intact at Scott Reef after the 2016 thermal stress event.

“This raises the possibility that bleaching-resistant non-scleractinan reef-builders such as blue coral could provide new ecological opportunities for future reefs by filling empty niches left by retreating hard corals and by performing critical functions to help secure the future of coral reef ecosystems,” she said.

The researchers noted the two species of blue coral were readily identifiable from one another as the new species, Heliopora hiberniana, had a white skeleton and the original species, Heliopora coerulea, hada blue skeleton.

Dr Richards said this discovery would continue to help researchers explore the changes that were predicted to occur in coral reef ecosystems.

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