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article imageOp-Ed: Australia’s ‘extra’ big reef raising a lot of questions

By Paul Wallis     Mar 1, 2021 in Environment
Brisbane - What’s donut-shaped, 300m across,20m high, 10,000 years old, and lives right next to the Great Barrier Reef? That’s the puzzle. Deep reefs, largely ignored until recently, are showing a whole new perspective.
These reef structures are called “bioherms”. They’re interesting in a lot of ways. Notably the fact that 1300 species inhabit them. They’re considered to be coral rainforests, and they’re local oases in the deeper water.
A study by PhD candidate Mardi McNeil from the Queensland University of Technology has raised a lot of issues. Ms. McNeil’s work has raised many questions, all of which are extremely important for the reef and ocean ecosystem.
These bioherms are effectively an “extra” reef in Australia’s vast Great Barrier Reef. Current measurements indicate they occupy an area of 1740 square kilometres. The earliest mentions of them I can find date back to about 2016 and 2017. They’ve been known about as geological structures since 1970s, but not much researched. The bioherms were discovered in a survey by the Royal Australian Navy, but not much work was done in terms of investigation until relatively recently. Various studies dating from 2003 provided data, but apparently not much actual physical research.
Now, the information is coming in, and it’s an interesting study in a basically diversified reef ecology. They were described as an inter-reef habitat, which is about as non-specific a term for an ecological entity as you could wish. It’s quite possible that the bioherms are a major component in the full-spectrum reef ecology, which is pretty complex and highly evolved.
In biology the term microclimate effectively translates into micro-environments. Everything that lives has some sort of local microclimate. It’s no great leap of logic to consider the bioherms a successful form of DIY ecology, creating viable structures at greater depths.
The depths haven’t help in terms of studying the bioherms. The Great Barrier Reef is a huge space, and study tends to get diluted over its vast areas. There are only so many people who can do only so much.
That situation is hardly an asset. The Great Barrier Reef is a huge breeding ground, supporting the food chain. It’s under threat from warming oceans and acidification, and it’s not clear how these issues will affect the bioherms. So far they seem OK. Understanding their role is crucial to a better picture of the Reef and its future needs.
Saving the reef may well be a key part of saving the planet
The dangers of massive oceanic environmental change can’t be overstated. Much of the world’s food comes from the oceans. Irresponsible fishing, mismanagement, and now environmental big hits, could crash that ecosystem. The bioherms may play a major role in reef ecology, out of the reach, perhaps, of the major hits due to their depth. They’re repositories of the critical species which make up the reef as a whole. 40% of their species aren’t found on the rest of the reef, including a couple of endangered types of coral.
The relationship between the bioherms and the wider reef may well be crucial. This is a missing link that’s now been found but not well understood. Watch this space, because everything that’s discovered will be of very high value.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about bioherms, Mardi McNeil, Queensland university of technology, Great barrier reef, Ocean acidification
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