SHELLEY resident Zoe Richards hopes her research will unlock answers that could help save the Great Barrier Reef from the ravages of climate change.
The Curtin University research fellow is analysing Kimberley corals’ ability to withstand high temperatures and thrive under tough conditions while corals on other Australian reefs are declining.
Dr Richards recently received a $221,973 Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects grant for her research.
Leading a team of eight, Dr Richards will focus on corals in the Bonaparte intertidal zone in the Kimberley, a region that is covered at high tide but exposed during low tide.
“There is an incredible reef system up there with huge tides that sometimes oscillate over 11 metres, so at low tide the corals are completely out of the water and exposed to the sunlight for up to three hours at a time,” she said.
“Usually, these are really stressful conditions, but these corals are thriving.
“We want to examine why the Kimberley corals are so hardy while other corals are struggling.
“The Kimberley corals have adapted to these conditions. We are trying to see which parts of their genome have been able to change quickly enough. We hope our research can begin to help answer the big question: can corals keep up with climate change.”
Dr Richards said understanding how the Kimberley corals were coping while many elsewhere, including the Great Barrier Reef, were dying could shed light on the resilience of different coral species to climate change.
She said other researchers around the world were examining ways to rescue corals affected by climate change through introducing new gene stock to coral populations and assisted coral relocation.
“The research we are doing is trying to underpin decisions as to whether those types of more manipulative restoration strategies are really viable.”
Her fascination with corals began after she volunteered in her 20s to work with a world coral expert, Dr Carden Wallace, at the Museum of Tropical Queensland.
“She was an inspirational mentor to me for about three or four years. I worked as her research assistant,” she said.
Dr Richards said there were about 300 species of corals in the Kimberley and of this amount, 240 species occurred in the intertidal zone.
“As West Australians it is important to realise that we have this tropical wonder up there,” she said.
She said her research involved considerable fieldwork and divers had to keep a close eye out for crocodiles.
“On a number of occasions in the early morning we will go out and there will be one hanging in the water looking at us,” she said.
“One time I was about to dive into the water and a head popped up. If we see a croc we move.”