Marine biology masters student Lilianna Pap sets up equipment from the mini-reefs.
Marine biology masters student Lilianna Pap sets up equipment from the mini-reefs.
10 December 2015

Twelve miniature self-contained reefs on a remote island in the Great Barrier Reef are quietly predicting the future.

The project, at The University Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station, involves a team of researchers monitoring 12 mesocosms – the rebuilding of a natural environment under controlled conditions.

Project leader Dr Sophie Dove  from the School of Biological Sciences said the small reef ecosystems mimicked not only the current conditions of the Great Barrier Reef, but what would happen if climate change impacts increase or we fail to mitigate them.

“This project is particularly important right now as experts from around the world meet in Paris to discuss problems and solutions at the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference,” she said.

“The 12 mini-reefs are set up to simulate the effects of climate change – things like increased temperature and CO2 levels, and how reefs will change if these conditions become reality.

“The reefs mimic the reef surrounding Heron Island, from which our samples of soft and hard coral and a mix of creatures like fish and sea cucumbers were sourced from.

“Seasonal and light conditions are imitated to give us an accurate idea of what would happen to the reef under several scenarios.”

The 12 tanks include multiples of four scenarios. A control group, a group that demonstrates what will happen to the reefs if no action is taken to improve their health, a group that measures the effect of higher temperatures and a group that measures the effect of higher seawater CO2 levels, which result in higher acidity.

“This is the third time we’ve run variations of this experiment to see how the coral reefs will react to different impacts,” Dr Dove said.

“We’ve found that the effects on our reefs will be dire should no action be taken to lower greenhouse gasses and mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Corals will die and decalcify, impacting the survival of the creatures that live there and damaging the livelihoods of the hundreds of millions of people who rely on the ocean and reefs for survival.

“If we take action, at least some of this damage could be controlled.”

The team even runs controls of the control to ensure results are accurate.

Marine Biology masters student Lilianna Pap has established small reefs on a dive site off Heron Island to check nature’s conditions against those in the mesocosms.

“We have six mini-reefs, with six corals in each reef, which will be down there for six months” she said.

“We are looking at how relevant the control is to the natural habitat when we compare all the data, to make sure our results are correct.”

Dr Dove said the findings from the project would help management agencies understand the threats to coral reefs and the ways to help save them.

“If we can reduce the uncertainty on how reefs will react to climate change, we can make better decisions on how to protect them,” she said.

Media: Dr Sophie Dove,, +61 7 336 57229; Science communications Jacqueline Mergard,, +61 7 3365 3634, 0435 090 802; UQ communications Katie Rowney,, 3365 3439.