Aerial shot looking down on a white boat over blue water and rocky corals

These ‘old trees’ of Ningaloo Reef are resisting bleaching events – and scientists want to know why.

Marine scientists have begun mapping the giant coral reefs of the Ningaloo Reef in hopes of predicting the future of the ecosystem’s health in the face of warming ocean temperatures.

The 260-kilometer-long fringing reef off Australia’s northwest coast is home to a series of ancient coral reefs – coastal reefs, many of them shaped like boulders – that can reach ages of more than 600 years.

Most of these bombs are made of stony coral known as porites.

Little is known about the different types of porites coral.

But what is known is that they are an important building block of coral reefs, and in some cases they are an important part of the reef.

Minderoo Foundation research scientist Kate Quigley said these types of corals are also very important as they can withstand the heat.

Aerial shot looking down on a white boat over blue water and rocky corals

Researchers sampled porites coral from Ningaloo Reef in Osprey Bay.(Credit: Minderoo Foundation / Carly Keech)

“In general, they are the ones that can survive, for example, warming and bleaching events, not all the time, but generally they can,” he said.

“These are really… like ancient forest trees where… single people, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, possibly.

“So it is very important that we understand where these important colonies are, how they are doing, and to begin to project how they will do in the future, because of their important role in the reef.”

Two women in white lab coats in the lab preparing samples in test tubes

Kate Quigley and Nikki De Campe prepared porites samples for DNA extraction.(Credit: Minderoo Foundation / Carly Keech)

What makes them resist whitewashing?

New molecular tools allow scientists to delve deeper into the mysteries of porites corals, which have previously been difficult to decipher from species to species.

A series of projects by the Minderoo Foundation, Curtin University and James Cook University will find out how many species there are in Ningaloo and where they are.

They will also look at what makes porites corals more resistant to bleaching.

A wide underwater angle shows the large rock porties on the left and the diver behind them taking a sample from the shallow water.

Curtin University PhD candidate David Juszkiewicz takes a sample of porites from Ningaloo Reef.(Credit: Minderoo Foundation / Carly Keech)

Dr Quigley said one of the main things to study is how well corals are doing now.

“That will allow us to predict how they will do in the future under different climate change scenarios,” he said.

“The longevity of these corals gives us an idea of ​​the past. So what kind of environment did Ningaloo go through in the past … and it can give us an insight into how Ningaloo will fare in the future.

What does it mean when you have a 600-year-old colony that was doing well for 600 years, and all of a sudden it’s not doing well now.

Back view of man in white lab coat at desk, microscope projects close-up pattern of coral on monitor

Little is known about the different types of porites coral.(Credit: Minderoo Foundation / Carly Keech)

The researchers also hope that the work will raise awareness and help educate people about porites colonies, tourists and locals who may encounter it, but don’t know much about it.

One of the most visited coral reefs in the tourist hot spot of Coral Bay, on Ningaloo Reef, is a bommie known as Ayers Rock, which is 8 meters wide and about 6m long.

Dr Quigley said the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions told him some of the explosives they were looking at were some of the most visited sites on the reef.

“Research, it’s a great communication tool … to help promote reefs and connect people to real corals,” he said.

“Just as you go on a bushwalk, or walk in the forest, you connect with certain places.”

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