The Great Barrier Reef off of Australia’s eastern coast is one of the wonders of the world. The Earth’s largest coral reef system, its maze and patchwork of pastel blues and greens, all built by tiny coral polyps that create calcium carbonate skeletons and slowly build the habitat’s massive structure. Tropical reefs are a cornerstone of all life in the ocean.
Scientists come from around the globe to study this ecosystem. And it’s an ecosystem in danger. With a loss of up to 40 percent of the world’s reefs in the last 50 years, many are concerned about their future. The key to deeper understanding may lie in the waters surrounding Lizard Island.
“It’s just amazing how different everything is in this environment.”
— Ryan McMinds | Ph.D. Student | College of Science
Ryan McMinds is fascinated by evolutionary biology. Diverse ecosystems are the perfect places to study evolution. Coral reefs are called the rainforests of the ocean because of their biodiversity, though they are vastly older than their terrestrial counterparts. So studying marine biology in these systems is a natural fit. His research has taken him around the world, including to Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
McMinds is pursuing his Ph.D. in Oregon State University’s College of Science. He’s part of the Global Coral Microbiome Project, headed by Assistant Professor Rebecca Vega-Thurber. The project looks into the co-evolution of marine corals and their bacteria. As part of laying groundwork for that project, McMinds traveled to Australia to collect samples on the Great Barrier Reef for processing back at Vega-Thurber’s lab.
What they discover will shed light on coral disease. Because of increasing pressures from pollution, climate change, overfishing and a host of human-related causes, incidents of coral disease have been on the rise. So understanding corals at a microbial level is critical.
“We’re really losing corals fast,” McMinds says. “But if we better understand them, maybe we can learn how to stop losing them.”
“If we lose it, it would be a tragedy, an absolute tragedy.”
— Anne Hoggett | Co-Director | Lizard Island Research Station
International collaboration is at the heart of the work at Lizard Island Research Station, owned and operated by the Australia Museum. A breezy collection of buildings on an island off the coastline of Queensland, Australia, the station sits in the shadow of Cook’s Look, the tallest summit on the Great Barrier Reef. With well-equipped labs and aquaria that pump seawater from the nearby beach, as well as a fleet of research vessels at the ready, it has everything scientists need to study the surrounding reefs.
Researchers explore everything here from global pressures to microscopic bacteria. One team will be investigating changes in the behavior of reef fish due to ocean acidification, while another investigates the susceptibility of corals disease or the signals sent out from reef microbes that could inspire the discovery of new medicines.
“There are things in there we don’t even know we’re going to lose, if we lose this environment,” says Anne Hoggett, who’s been co-directing the station for a quarter century. She’s one of the island’s few permanent residents, and the station is her home. For Hoggett, fighting to conserve the reefs is personal.
“Oceans are not constrained by international or state boundaries; therefore, it takes a global perspective to access solutions.”
— Wren Patton ’11 | College of Science | University Honors College
Wren Patton traveled around the world to study a changing ocean. Currently a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, Patton earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State while a student in the University Honors College. Now, she studies one of the greatest challenges facing our marine habitats: the impact of ocean acidification on fish behavior.
As the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide, the pH of the water changes. And increased acidity has been shown in experiments to cause predator species to lose interest in their prey, and prey species to no longer fear their predators. What Patton wants to understand is if fish have the ability to adapt or acclimate to projected acidity levels 100 years from now.
In the open air laboratories at Lizard Island Research Station, Patton conducts experiments on fish she collected on the Great Barrier Reef, hoping to unlock clues that will help us understand the potential impacts of climate change.
Patton hopes her research will help protect vital habitats.
“We all grow up with stars in our eyes, wanting to make a difference,” says Patton. “And I’m certainly no different.”
“There is always hope in aboriginal belief.”
— Errol Neal | Mayor | Yarrabah, Australia
The town of Yarrabah sits on a pristine stretch of coast in Queensland, Australia. But despite its beauty, there are challenges. Yarrabah has few jobs and no businesses. The aboriginal people of the region have depended on the Great Barrier Reef as a source of livelihood, sustenance and culture for 40,000 years, but economic issues and the environmental decline of the reef are causing concern.
Yarrabah Mayor Errol Neal believes he can help change things. He’s planning an ecotourism development that will provide jobs while also maintaining environmental balance. He believes his people are uniquely positioned to respect this equation. And the key is to always listen to the voices of his ancestors.
“Saving Atlantis” is a feature documentary currently in production by a team from Oregon State University. It focuses on the dramatic loss of coral reef ecosystems around the world and those who are fighting to uncover the causes and find solutions before it’s too late. “Saving Atlantis” tells stories of personal connection to magnificent coral habitats and explains the cost of losing them. The film is an emotional exploration of some of our planet's greatest natural wonders.