March 2021 Solitary Islands

Andrew Baird has just returned from a field trip to the Solitary Islands Marine Park (SIMP). The weather and sea conditions were brilliant, with light winds and the deep warm blue of the East Australia Current bathing the outer islands of the group. Project Phoenix have been working in the SIMP since 2010 to document the biodiversity of the coral fauna. It has been a long task but after much effort, we are finally approaching a true appreciation of this magnificent coral province. The coral fauna has traditionally been interpreted as a depauperate sub-set of corals from the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Indeed, until very recently, with the description of Pocillopora aliciae Schmidt-Roach, Miller & Andreakis (2013), all the coral species in the Solitary Islands were thought to occur on the GBR. Our latest results from the genus Acropora, presented in a seminar at the National Marine Science Center in Coffs Harbour on 12 March 2021, indicate that 50% of the Acropora species in the SIMP are not found on the GBR and most are likely to be endemic to south-eastern Australia. This level of endemicity is unheard-of for corals and indicates that the conservation significance of the SIMP is much greater than currently recognized.

Andrew was also exploring collaborative opportunities with some locals, Dr David Abrego and Dr Emily Howells from Southern Cross University. We are calling one of these projects “Pools of Resilience”. The park is home to a series of inter-tidal rock pools nestled among the rocky headlands extending from Coffs Harbour north to Angourie. These pools are home to a very hardy subset of coral species. The annual temperature range in one of these rock pools at Sandon River was 17 degrees Celsius (15.45 – 32.45), similar to that in the Persian Gulf, known as one of the most extreme environments for corals. Exploring the mechanisms by which these species acclimate to such extremes can provide important insights into the future for corals under climate change.

Andrew thanks David and Emily for their wonderful hospitality at Emerald Beach, Damo from Southern Cross University for getting us out to South Solitary Island and the Wooli Dive Centre for a great day at North Solitary Islands.

Figure 1. Pool of Resilience. An intertidal rock pool at Arrawarra Headland in the Solitary Islands Marine Park containing four species of scleractinian corals, the largest of which was approximately 50 cm diameter. Photo credit: Andrew Baird
Figure 2. A close-up of a colony of Homophyllia bowerbanki (Milne-Edwards & Haime, 1857) living happily in the rock pool in Figure 1. Photo credit: Andrew Baird

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