Take a deep dive into our discoveries at Ningaloo Reef

By August 19th, 2020

Turtle nail clippings, diving whale sharks and 12 million mushroom corals are key research discoveries from Ningaloo Reef.

close up of whale shark from the front

Image: Richard Pillans

Tracking the biggest fish in the sea

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea. But not a lot is known about them.

Since 2015 as part of our Ningaloo Outlook program, we’ve been tracking whale sharks to understand more about their behaviour and movements. Whale sharks tend to stay within 300-400 kilometres of Ningaloo Reef, but some have been tracked travelling thousands of kilometres away, even as far as Indonesia! They can also dive to depth of up to 1.7 kilometres.

Our research will continue to address a global knowledge gap by collecting DNA samples that will enable an estimate of adult whale shark abundance in the North-Eastern Indian Ocean.

Turtle nail clippings and nesting journeys

Turtle at Ningaloo Reef from underneath

Image: Richard Pillans

We’ve revolutionised methods to understand what turtles eat by using their nail clippings, a non-invasive alternative to using blood and skin samples.

Chemical analysis has revealed that a juvenile’s diet on the reef is primarily seagrass, changing to seaweed and jellyfish as they increase in size and move into lagoons.

We have also mapped the migration of several female green turtles from their feeding grounds, to nesting grounds hundreds of kilometres away, and back.

We could do this by using ultrasound to detect yolk-bearing follicles that develop into eggs. We then used satellite tags to track where they travelled to nest.

Our continuing research will deepen our understanding of turtles, including developing methods to estimate their abundance.

The largest community of mushroom corals ever found

Mushroom corals with a close-up image inset

Image: CSIRO Deep Reefs Research Team

We were excited to discover 12 million mushroom corals, believed to be the largest aggregation in the world. This equates to half the population of Australia standing on Bondi Beach, shoulder to shoulder.

Like most corals, mushroom corals get their energy from the sun through single-celled algae that live within the corals and photosynthesise. This means that they can’t survive in water that is too deep, otherwise not enough light would reach them. Living in shallow waters would make them susceptible to rough sea conditions. Living in water depths of around 40 metres at Ningaloo Reef is just right.

Mapping unique and complex reef systems

School of fishes on the shallow reefs of Ningaloo

Image: CSIRO Shallow Reefs Research Team

The shallow and deep reefs of Ningaloo Reef are home to more than 200 species of corals and 500 fishes.

We have explored these diverse marine ecosystems through dozens of expeditions to collect long-term data. This included using automated remote vehicles to explore parts of Ningaloo Reef never mapped before.

Providing community science opportunities

CSIRO scientist with school students from Exmouth School holding up their science activities on paper

School students learn about marine debris as a classroom STEAM activity. Image: Jo Myers

Part of our research includes working closely with the local school and volunteer community groups. This brings real-life science into the classroom and builds an increased awareness of the ecological values of Ningaloo Reef across the community.

The school has assisted with turtle tagging and has been involved in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) initiatives in the classroom including presentations and art activities.

Our involvement aims to increase engagement in STEAM while showcasing science as a rewarding and exciting career.

Supporting marine park management

Aerial shot of Ningaloo Reef

Image: Richard Pillans

Extending for 300 kilometres, Ningaloo Reef is a World Heritage Area and is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef. Our science means we now know more about Ningaloo Reef than ever before. This information is providing trusted knowledge which can assist park management, industry and government in decision making.

Our extensive marine debris surveys of Ningaloo’s shallow reefs and beaches show Ningaloo Reef is one of the cleanest reefs in the world.

We have mapped five deep-water reefs, and will be extending long-term observations on coral reef health and estimates of reef growth. We will also be further investigating deep reefs, the animals that live there, and the environmental influences critical for maintaining these habitats.

Further research will commence this year to collect new information to help support the ongoing sustainable use of Ningaloo Reef, while deepening our understanding of the megafauna and coral communities that call the area home.

Find out more about Ningaloo Outlook.

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