New species of coral discovered on Great Barrier Reef

By AG Staff 7 December 2017
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During their search for ‘super corals’ in the northern Great Barrier Reef, scientists have discovered a new species of branching coral.

SCIENTISTS ON an expedition to survey parts of the northern Great Barrier Reef for so-called super corals have found a new species of coral on what’s been dubbed a ‘legacy super site’ on the outer reef.

It’s the first new species of branching coral discovered in more than three decades and was confirmed by legendary coral biologist Charlie Veron who during his career has discovered 20 per cent of the world’s coral species.

Charlie was part of a group of coral reef experts asked to join the Great Barrier Reef Legacy (GBRL), a program supported by the Australian Geographic Society, on an expedition in search of super corals to parts of the northern Great Barrier Reef devastated by consecutive waves of coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017.

“While our expedition has provided a reef health assessment, as well as habitat mapping both aerially and underwater, as well as identify coral species able to withstand bleaching events, this new ‘legacy super site’ and new coral species are the icing on the cake,” Dean Miller, GBRL director of science and media, told Australian Geographic.

gbrl ship

M.Y. Flying Fish vessel used for the expedition, operated by Captain Paul Nelson (Image Credit: GBRL)

No time to be complacent

Emma Camp, a coral expert aboard the research vessel who’s managed to convert a marble bath into a mobile field laboratory, said that although the discovery of healthy coral sites and a new species is a good sign, scientists can’t be complacent.

“The 2016-2017 back-to-back bleaching events clearly devastated large areas of the reef. We saw mortality of massive Porites colonies that have taken hundreds of years to grow,” she said. “Some sites can only be described as a coral graveyard and could take decades to recover, if recovery is possible at all.”

Acropora tenuis

Acropora tenuis specimens. (Image Credit: Emma Camp)

The search for super corals

Emma said the team has found certain species that appear to be survivors or ‘super corals’ across all of the sites they visited. These include Acropora tenuis —an important reef building coral — and the team is now “working to understand the traits that facilitate resilience.”

The team of scientists also witnessed signs of coral recruitment and a capacity for reproduction.

“We have found signs of egg development for the upcoming full moon this week, which will start to drive natural recovery through the area. The Australian Institute of Marine Science  has also flown corals back to aquariums in Townsville to enhance reef restoration techniques with these surviving corals,” said Neal Cantin, a coral biologist from the institute.

coral eggs

Eggs in a Acropora spathulata coral. (Image Credit: Emma Camp)

More collaborative expeditions

Dean explained that the significant findings from the expedition are evidence of the importance of collaborative research.

“It’s critical we understand how the natural system is coping with these heat stress events, which is why we need to continue to run these types of collaborative expeditions,’ he said. “We encourage other public, private and corporate sponsors who want to take direct action on the future health of the Great Barrier Reef to get in touch with us and help us launch our next expedition in 2018.”