Dr Steve Whalan’s award-winning research idea to restore damaged reefs by encouraging corals and sponges to grow on artificial surfaces sparked an innovative research project led by the Research Fellow at Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre.

Dr Steve Whalan

Dr Steve Whalan

Published in journal PLoS ONE, Dr Whalan’s research paper describes how the progeny, aka larvae, of corals and sponges are free to spread their wings and swim around before they ‘settle down’, in stark contrast to their immobile parents.

"It is actually the larvae that make the real estate choices, relying on environmental cues to seek out suitable places to live," Dr Whalan said.

"Once a larva is happy with the home site, it undergoes irreversible metamorphosis into a young coral or sponge.

"Unravelling the real estate choices of larvae will be of considerable help to effective reef restoration practices."

With this in mind, the study used artificial surfaces embedded with micro-crevices of differing sizes to determine which physical characteristics held most appeal.

The results established that some species preferred crevices which matched the actual size of the larvae.

"Piecing together vital parts of the puzzle that is larval settlement of corals and sponges will be instrumental in how we equip ourselves to restore degraded reefs and the remarkable diversity that coral reefs are noted for," Dr Whalan said.

A collaborative team from Southern Cross University, James Cook University and the CSIRO conducted the study on Queensland's Orpheus Island in the Great Barrier Reef