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Ian Potter Foundation grant to open exciting new frontiers on the Great Barrier Reef

1st February 2020

A world-first multi-disciplinary research project to better understand a vast inter-reef habitat in the northern Great Barrier Reef will set sail thanks to a $150,000 grant from The Ian Potter Foundation.

Led by QUT’s Dr Luke Nothdurft, the project will analyse the largest actively accumulating Halimeda bioherm deposits in the world, to better understand how carbon and nutrients are stored and released within the reef ecosystem, and the role of the Halimeda in this complex cycle.

Halimeda bioherms are created by the growth of Halimeda, a common green algae composed of living calcified segments. They form small limestone flakes when they die, looking much like white cornflakes. Over time these flakes build up into large reef-like mounds called bioherms.
A major goal of the research is to establish vital baseline information on how Halimeda macroalgal habitats contribute to tropical systems in Australia and globally.

The project builds on earlier seabed mapping work published by QUT PhD candidate Mardi McNeil. As lead author, Ms McNeil was the first to describe the finding that the Halimeda bioherms formed fields of donut-shaped structures – a discovery that caused previous scientific interpretations of the bioherms to be reassessed.

Researchers will calculate the volume of calcium carbonate contained within the bioherms and investigate the bioherms’ role in reef development, carbon storage and as habitat for biological communities. This will generate new knowledge to facilitate better management of the entire Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

Dr Nothdurft emphasised the potential importance of the project. “Currently, there’s little information about bioherms in the Great Barrier Reef, and consequently how to manage them. Few people have actually seen them as they are not in easily accessible places frequented by scuba divers.”

As the only group undertaking this research area in the world, the project represents significant benefit to Australia in protecting the reef.

The research team will also examine how the dynamics between the ocean, atmosphere and biosphere emit and store carbon. From here, they can explore the bioherms’ potentially important role in sequestering marine greenhouse gases.

The research relies on generous donations and in-kind contributions, including a grant of sea time on the CSIRO marine research vessel, the RV Investigator, for 33 days (valued at over $4 million), and $60,000 in funding and state-of-the-art field and laboratory equipment from QUT.

Dr Nothdurft acknowledges Ms McNeil’s outstanding contribution to this field of research: “Mardi is an exceptional PhD candidate and her work highlights her potential to contribute fundamental knowledge and management to the field of environmental science.”

“We are so excited to be a recipient of support from The Ian Potter Foundation. It is such an honour and a real game-changer for our research,” said Ms McNeil.

“This gift allows us to focus on project planning, new collaborations with Australian and international colleagues, and to maximise our scientific outcomes and impact.”

Collaborating organisations include the University of Sydney, Southern Cross University, James Cook University and the University of Granada in Spain, and the Queensland Museum.
Dr Nothdurft, Ms McNeil and another five PhD candidates will embark on their 33-day research voyage on the RV Investigator in 2020, with the entire project due for completion in September 2022.

Findings of the project will attract significant national and international interest, and will be widely disseminated to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GRMPA), the international scientific community, government and the general public through outreach events.

To find out more about this exciting research project, contact Dr Luke Nothdurft.

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