Organisms exposed over many generations to stressful environmental conditions may adapt by changing their behaviour, structural form or biology. This ensures their health and survival is maintained. Adaptation typically occurs through natural selection.


Bioinformatics is about storing, retrieving, organizing and analysing biological data, and it relies on many areas of computer science, mathematics and engineering to do this. Bioinformatics is fundamental to genomics research because extraordinarily large quantities of information are held in each strand of DNA. For example, when long strands of DNA are sequenced, they are first broken into fragments because gene-sequencing machines can only handle small stretches of DNA at a time. Once these random fragments are sequenced, powerful supercomputers are needed to compare overlapping sections and recreate the original, long strand.

Carbon budget

Similar to a household budget that balances income and expenditure, a carbon budget is an estimate of carbon sources (i.e. incoming) and sinks (i.e. outgoing) in an ecosystem. On the Great Barrier Reef, carbon cycles across the reef shelf, moving between the air, water column and seabed.

Carbon chemistry

Carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form carbonic acid. This increased acidity of the water dissolves the calcium carbonate shells of many shelled organisms such as molluscs and coral. Carbon chemistry is the science of measuring the properties and behaviour of carbon in the ocean.


A catchment (also called river basin or watershed) is a region of land where water from rainfall drains downhill into a body of water, such as a river, lake, dam, estuary, wetland, sea or ocean.


Crustose coralline algae (CCA) are rock-hard calcareous red algae that fulfil two key functional roles in coral reef ecosystems: they contribute significantly to reef calcification and cementation, and they induce larval settlement of many benthic organisms (such as corals and sponges).


Chlorophyll is a green pigment found in most plants, algae, and cyanobacteria. The concentration of chlorophyll in a water body indicates the amount of phytoplankton (microscopic algae & cyanobacteria) in the water. This can be measured in-situ by collecting water samples or remotely from satellite colour images. Phytoplankton are a natural part of the reef water ecosystem and are food for many marine organisms, however elevated numbers (a bloom) can be a sign of nutrient pollution.

Citizen Science

Citizen science is research conducted by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. Citizen science may be performed by individuals, teams, or networks of volunteers. Examples of citizen science networks that collect data on the Great Barrier Reef are: Coral Watch, Seagrass Watch, Mangrove Watch, Eye on the Reef and Project Manta


If two reefs are connected, it means that individual organisms (e.g. fish and coral larvae) can successfully move between them, usually with the aid of ocean currents. Strong connectivity is crucial for many ecological processes, such as re-colonisation following a destructive storm event or movement in response to climate change.

Coral bleaching

Occurs when the microscopic algae (see Symbiodinium) living within coral tissues are expelled due to a change in water chemistry (temperature, salinity, pH) leaving the coral skeleton looking bleached. If the Symbiodinium do not return before the coral starves, and they will only do so under optimum conditions, the coral dies.

Coral disease

Coral disease has significantly affected coral reefs in the Caribbean and poses a growing threat to Australia's reefs. To date, more than seven coral diseases have been identified on Australian reefs (including white syndrome, black band, and brown band disease). The lethal mechanisms of these diseases are not well understood at present, however it is hypothesised that corals under stress (pollution, temperature), have a weakened defence and are more likely to become infected.

Coral Spawning

Mass coral spawning was discovered on the Great Barrier Reef in the 1980’s by Professor Peter Harrison and colleagues. This discovery altered scientific understanding of how and when most reef corals reproduce and led to a global renaissance in coral reproduction studies. The mass coral spawning research on the Great Barrier Reef also enabled relatively predictable access to millions of spawned gametes and the development of techniques for rearing millions of larvae. These advances in knowledge have in turn led to the development of coral larval enhancement studies, sometimes referred to as larval ‘reseeding’. Advances in these studies are important because coral reproduction in natural environments can be highly inefficient. During spawning, clouds of coral eggs and sperm float in all directions, at the mercy of the currents, winds, and waves. When egg and sperm do eventually meet, many of the resulting larvae can drift away from reefs and die. Only very few of the larvae settling on reefs take hold and reach breeding age themselves.


Coral eating starfish with the potential for population outbreaks which destroy vast areas of coral reefs.


Microscopic one-celled or colonial algae having cell walls of silica.


Foraminifera (Forams) are a highly abundant and diverse group of single celled organisms which live floating in the ocean or sedentary on the sea floor. Encased in a calcium shell Forams will be affected by ocean acidification. Due to their calcium carbonate shell, Forams play a crucial role in the sand budget of many coral cays. Changes in Foram populations can be used as indicators of coral reef health.

Genome, genomics

The genome is the complete set of genetic material (DNA/RNA) of an organism. Genomics is the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes.

Habitat Structure

Habitat structure mainly refers to the physical complexity of reef habitats. Reef environments with reduced habitat complexity will support only a fraction of the species and individuals found in complex flourishing reef habitats. High levels of habitat structure is a fundamental attribute of resilient coral reefs.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is a scientific body tasked to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity. The panel was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), two organizations of the United Nations (UN).

Larval reseeding

Larval ‘reseeding’ is an innovative technique that produces millions of larvae from eggs and sperm captured during large-scale spawning events. The resulting larvae are delivered back onto the reef via large underwater mesh tents where their settlement and growth rates of the larvae are monitored and quantified. This technique is a novel means of repopulating reef ecosystems that may be damaged from coral bleaching or other causes. The technique has great potential for scaling-up restoration efforts to be ecologically meaningful at the individual reef scale. Mass larval enhancement also has significant advantages of producing greater genetic diversity among coral recruits, which is likely to improve their ability to adapt and increase resistance to future disturbances, thereby strengthening resilience and recovery rates.


Climate change mitigation is the process of taking actions to reduce the extent of climate change. This is in contrast to adaptation, the process of adapting to new conditions which develop as a result of climate change (see Adaptation). An example of mitigation is planting trees to offset carbon emissions.


Regular collection of water quality samples (e.g. nutrient concentration, water temperature) or biological observations (e.g. fish counts, coral counts), or images (photo transects, satellite imagery) used to measure and track changes in conditions at a specific location on the Reef.

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is the name given to the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth's oceans (increasing acidity), caused by the absorption of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

Reef Report Card

The annual Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (Reef Plan) Report Card is produced by the Queensland Government and measures progress towards Reef Plan’s goals and targets. The information in these reports determines the success of Reef Plan and identifies whether further measures need to be taken to address water quality in the Great Barrier Reef.


An area in which organisms can survive through a period of unfavourable conditions, e.g. periods of high temperatures, storm events, poor water quality.

Remote sensing

Remote sensing is the acquisition of information about an object or phenomenon without making physical contact with the object. Remotely sensed ocean-colour data (collected by satellites) can be translated into maps of the world’s oceans, showing water temperature, freshwater river plumes and concentrations of sediment and algae.


The ability of the Reef to resist and recover from disturbance.


Genomic sequencing is the method used by researchers to read and decipher the genetic information found in DNA. Sequencing involves determining the precise order of the bases—the nucleotide subunits adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T)—in a string of DNA. There are various techniques to read the sequence of "letters" in genes and genomes.

Surface films

Surface films are comprised of naturally-occurring molecules that form very thin layers, one molecule thick. Scientists have observed that when applied to the surface of water, these surface films can be used to help regulate environmental conditions. For example, they can control evaporation from water storage reservoirs during periods of intense drought.


Symbiodinium are micro-organisms that live in the tissue of corals, sea anemones and jellyfish, giving them life and colour. Like plants, Symbiodinium can photosynthesise to make food from sunlight and this food feeds the host coral. Corals expel their Symbiodinium when stressed, leaving them white (see Coral Bleaching), and if the Symbiodinium do not return the coral dies.


A close ecological relationship between the individuals of two (or more) different species. Sometimes a symbiotic relationship benefits both species, sometimes one species benefits at the other's expense, and in other cases neither species benefits.


Traits are any physical or biological features of an organism that do not necessarily relate to taxonomy or environment. For example, coral traits might be: growth rate or the number of zooxanthellae types an individual coral can support. Traits are relatively stable over time and differ across individuals (e.g. some corals grow fast whereas others grow slow).


Transdifferentiation is defined as the conversion of one cell type to another. It belongs to a wider class of cell type transformations called metaplasias which also includes cases in which stem cells of one tissue type switch to a completely different stem cell.


Upwelling is the phenomenon where cool nutrient-rich water from deep waters is pushed towards the ocean surface. The nutrients brought to the surface typically stimulate phytoplankton (microscopic green algae) growth and productive fisheries.

Water quality

The physical, chemical and biological characteristics of water in relationship to a set of standards.


Zooplankton are floating or weakly swimming animals that rely on water currents to move any great distance. They are usually larger than phytoplankton, ranging from tiny copepods, less than a centimetre long, to jellyfishes and colonial salps that may be metres long. They are the favourite food of a great many marine animals so camouflaging themselves is a very important survival strategy. Developing effective camouflage when you live in clear, blue water is no easy matter. The best solution and the one most often used by members of the zooplankton is to be as transparent as possible or, in the case of many surface floating jellyfishes, blue.


Zooxanthellae is the colloquial name for Symbiodinium (See Symbiodinium)