Exmouth Research Lab

Research Projects

Use of molecular tools to for conservation and protection

Irukandji Jellyfish Study

JESS STRICKLAND (Griffith University)

Dangerous Irukandji jellyfishes pose a major risk to human health and enterprise in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. Managing the social and economic risks posed by Irukandji is a priority for managers of the Ningaloo Marine Park. Developing eDNA approaches for detecting Irukandji will enable accurate early detection to be implemented, which will enhance understanding of the population dynamics of Irukandji in the Ningaloo Marine Park and help manage risk.

Partners: Griffith University, James Cook University

Whale shark forensics with environmental DNA

LUKE THOMAS (AIMS@UWA)

Environmental DNA sequencing technology has the capacity to revolutionise marine monitoring programs and enhance our understanding of the impact of anthropogenic activity on threatened species. This project will deliver a novel methodology for monitoring whale shark aggregations in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area.

Partners: UWA, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Seagrass Resilience: Exploring recovery trajectories, succession and facilitation

SAM BILLINGHURST (ECU)

Supervisors:
KATHRYN MCMAHON (ECU)
PAUL LAVERY (ECU)

The aim of this project is to understand the resilience mechanisms in tropical seagrass meadows in northwestern Australia, through field sampling and experimental studies. The field work was undertaken in Exmouth Gulf. This research will generate knowledge, enabling improved monitoring programs in tropical Australia, and provide potential approaches to enhance recovery and rehabilitate seagrass meadows following disturbances.

Partners: Edith Cowan University

Molecules for conservation: Can eDNA be used to save cryptic populations of critically endangered sea snakes?

JENNA CROWE-RIDDELL (UoA)

Kate Sanders (JCU)
Vinay Udyawer (AIMS)

Exmouth Gulf is a global hotspot for sea snake diversity. It is the only known location for a breeding population of the critically endangered short-nosed sea snake (Aipysurus apraefrontalis), and is also likely to harbour a population of the critically endangered leaf-scaled sea snakes (Aipysurus foliosquama). These species were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in coastal WA in 2015. The rediscovery of coastal populations offer hope for these species’ survival, but to effectively protect them we need to understand their genetic diversity and population connectivity throughout their true geographic range.

Partners: University of Adelaide, Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University

Understanding Exmouth Gulf with a view to long-term protection

Metocean drivers of turbidity in the Exmouth Gulf: implications for marine benthic habitats under climate change scenarios

Project Student:
Paula Cartwright

Supervisors:
MICK O’LEARY (UWA)
Peter Fearns (Curtin University)

This research quantified metocean processes and other factors driving water quality and benthic habitat distribution in the Exmouth Gulf. The findings can be used to predict how climate change is likely to affect these processes in the future.

Partners: Curtin University, UWA

Carbonate budgets of two low-lying island reefs within the Exmouth Gulf

Project Student:
Shannon Dee

Supervisor:
MICK O’LEARY (UWA)
Nicola Brown (Curtin University)

Over two years, researchers monitored various elements of carbonate processes and ecosystem function across two island reefs in Exmouth Gulf. Primary carbonate production was quantified using habitat assessments to estimate coral cover and species identification, as well as through multi-year coral growth experiments. Secondary carbonate production was monitored through measuring biomass growth of encrusting species on tiles fixed at four sites across each reef. These sites were also used for bioerosion experiments to allow the researchers to quantify carbonate loss across each reef.

Partners: Curtin University, UWA

Development history of Pilbara reef islands and future sensitivity

Project Student:
Josh Bonesso

Supervisor:
MICK O’LEARY (UWA)
Nicola Brown (Curtin University)

This project assessed the stability of these low-lying islands by identifying whether they will continue to erode in the long term, stabilise (i.e., increased carbonate production) or actively accrete under the increased frequency of climate-driven changes in metocean states. Several methodologies and technologies were utilised to achieve the research aims.

Partners: Curtin University, UWA

Do turbid water corals have a higher bleaching threshold than clear water corals with and without feeding?

Project Student:
Adi Zweifler

Supervisor:
MICK O’LEARY (UWA)
Nicola Brown (Curtin University)

The aim of this project is to explore the potential for turbid water corals in Exmouth Gulf to function as coral refugia or as a recruitment source for the Ningaloo Reef. The project will involve an experimental investigation using aquaria to examine the effects of SST and light levels on corals. This experiment will be supported by in-situ coral growth rate measurements and field-based experiments in Exmouth Gulf.

Partners: Curtin University, UWA

Research to manage the reef under climate change

Monitoring the impacts of the 2021 La Niña event along Western Australia

Project Student:
Camille Grimaldi

Supervisor:
MICHAEL CUTTLER
RYAN LOWE

Many ecosystems along Western Australia experienced significant declines following catastrophic marine heatwave in 2011, including sections of Ningaloo Reef, which had its first recorded bleaching event during the 2011 event. This project aimed to understand how local oceanographic processes shape the temperature responses of individual reefs to regional-scale temperature variability. These data will help us better understand the ecological consequences of ocean warming on the Ningaloo Reef and how best to instigate management and restoration.

Partners: Aqualink.org, UWA

Mechanisms of coral resilience along Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

LUKE THOMAS / SHANNON DUFFY

While much of Ningaloo Reef has largely been spared major coral mortality from marine heat waves, the 2011 heatwave event highlighted the fragility of these iconic and important ecosystems to thermal stress. This project will apply a suite of molecular tools to explore variation in climate resilience in corals along Ningaloo Reef. Such information can be used to help inform management aimed at restoring degraded habitat or preserving key areas with high natural resilience.

Partners: UWA

Reef restoration and adaptation
(project still being developed)

ALICIA McARDLE (Mars Inc)

Minderoo Foundation is teaming up with partners to trial a coral reef restoration project that has shown great success in Indonesia and Queensland. This restoration approach is known as the Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System (or ‘MARRS’ for short). The approach involves carefully placing web of hexagonal steel structures, called ‘Reef Stars’ on the seafloor in areas where climate change damage will make it challenging for corals to recover naturally

Partners: Mars Inc, DBCA, GBRF, AIMS, UWA

Unravelling the secrets of mass coral spawning

NATALIE ROSSER

The aims of this study are to quantify whether the incidence of mass spawning in spring is increasing at Ningaloo Reef, and to use the natural variation in spawning time to identify the molecular pathways that have led to a shift in spawning seasonality in some corals. Understanding the genomic basis of seasonal breeding time, and in particular genomic changes and adaptations that allow corals to breed at new times, is critically important in our ability to develop conservation and rehabilitation strategies.

Partners: University of Wollongong

Ongoing monitoring of real‐time ocean conditions using low‐cost wave buoys

MICHAEL CUTTLER
RYAN LOWE
JEFF HANSEN

Real-time monitoring of waves and temperature is critical for understanding the dynamics that influence the coastal zone. This project complements existing ocean monitoring efforts by Minderoo Foundation, which in collaboration with UWA and IMOS (Integrated Marine Observation System), has established wave-water temperature monitoring sites in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area. The aim of the Minderoo monitoring program is to establish a long-term dataset that can guide management decisions in relation to changing oceanographic conditions in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area.

Partners: UWA, IMOS

Hydrodynamic forces on coral reefs: Colony to Canopy Scale

Project Student:
Justin Geldard

RYAN LOWE

This research will help us understand how the hydrodynamics associated with surface waves contribute to shaping the coral landscape across reefs. This understanding, initially developed in an experimental wave flume, will then be validated in situ within the Ningaloo Reef World Heritage Region, to provide a framework to support restoration and conservation interventions, identifying hydrodynamically high-risk regions as well as optimal coral morphologies and canopy characteristics to stabilise the ecosystem.

Partners: UWA

Research to support the goal of ’30 x 30′ and ocean conservation

Pelagic wildlife of the Ningaloo and Gascoyne Marine Parks: building resilient oceans

JESSICA MEEUWIG

Pelagic wildlife (sharks, tunas, megafauna and forage species) are an important component of the biodiversity of the Ningaloo and Gascoyne Marine Parks. We have monitored their conservation status, using mid-water baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVS), since 2016. We will extend this time series and expand spatially to include areas such as the Muiron Islands, that are considered priorities by the management authorities. A better understanding of the trajectory of pelagic wildlife will directly contribute to Australia’s commitment to an effective 30 x 30.

Partners: UWA

The predation of endangered loggerhead turtle hatchlings and eggs along the Ningaloo coast

Project student:
CASPER AVENANT

Supervisor:
Glenn Hyndes

Large numbers of endangered loggerhead turtles within the Ningaloo World Heritage Area are lost with hatchling mortality resulting from predation at between 8% and 24%, predominantly by ghost crabs. Preliminary results from the current study indicate predation rates along Western Australia’s Ningaloo coast well in excess of that reported by these studies, which highlights the urgent need for high quality quantifiable data, which will guide the development and implementation of appropriate mitigation strategies. In the long run these strategies will help survival of these endangered turtle species.

Partners: Edith Cowan University

Threatened species and their management

Investigating the ecology, behaviour, and habitat use of wedgefish in Western Australia

KARISSA LEAR

Rebecca Bateman

The Project seeks to build information about where wedgefish (type of ray) species are found in W.A. and to provide some of the first data describing fine-scale behaviour, activity patterns, and ecology of wedgefishes. This study will help inform both local and international management of these threatened fishes.

Partners: Murdoch University

Where do seabirds go to feed? Identifying marine hotspots for breeding seabirds using nano GPS

Dr CHRIS SURMAN

This project aims to improve our understanding of the feeding ecology of the lesser noddy seabird (Anous tenuirostris melanops) on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. The study involves the use of micro-GPS loggers that allows the researchers to track the tagged lesser noddys in near-real time. This species nests on Pelsaert Island and preliminary studies indicate that during nesting they fly westward to feeding grounds over marine canyons on the continental shelf. This study will provide more precise information of where they forage during nesting.

Partners: Halfmoon Biosciences