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Title: Depositional and palaeoecological characteristics of incipient and submerged coral reefs on the inner-shelf of Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Author: Johnson, James
Awarding Body: University of Exeter
Current Institution: University of Exeter
Date of Award: 2017
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Understanding how coral reefs have developed in the past is crucial for placing contemporary ecological and environmental change within appropriate reef-building timescales (i.e. centennial to millennial). On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR), coral reefs situated within nearshore settings on the inner continental shelf are a particular priority. This is due to their close proximity to river point sources, and therefore susceptibility to reduced water quality as the result of extensive modification of adjacent river catchments following European settlement in the region (ca. 1850 CE). However, the extent of water quality decline and its impact on the coral reefs of the GBR’s inner-shelf remains contentious and is confounded by a paucity of long-term (> decadal) datasets. Central to the on-going debate is uncertainty related to the impact of increased sediment loads, relative to the natural movement and resuspension of terrigenous sediments, which have accumulated on the inner-shelf over the last ~6,000 years. The main aim of this thesis was to characterise and investigate the vertical development of turbid nearshore coral reefs on the central GBR. This aim was achieved through the recovery of 21 reef cores (3 - 5 m in length) from five proximal turbid nearshore reefs, currently distributed across the spectrum of reef ‘geomorphological development’ within the Paluma Shoals reef complex (PSRC). The recovered reef cores were used to establish detailed depositional and palaeoecological records for the investigation of the (1) internal development and vertical accretionary history of the PSRC; and (2) compositional variation in turbid nearshore coral and benthic foraminiferal assemblages during vertical reef accretion towards sea level. Established chronostratigraphic and palaeoecological records were further used to assess the impact of post-European settlement associated water quality change in a turbid nearshore reef setting on the central GBR. Radiocarbon dating (n = 96 dates) revealed reef initiation within the PSRC to have occurred between ~2,000 and 1,000 calibrated years before present, with subsequent reef development occurring under the persistent influence of fine-grained (< 0.063 mm) terrigenous sediments. The internal development of the PSRC was characterised by discrete reef facies comprised of a loose coral framework with an unconsolidated siliciclastic-carbonate sediment matrix. A total of 29 genera of Scleractinian coral and 86 genera of benthic foraminifera were identified from the palaeoecological inventory of the PSRC. Both coral and benthic foraminiferal assemblages were characterised by distinct assemblages of taxa pre-adapted to sediment stress (i.e. low light availability and high sedimentation). At the genus level, no discernable evidence of compositional change in either coral or benthic foraminiferal assemblages was found, relative to European settlement. Instead, variations in assemblage composition were driven by intrinsic changes in prevailing abiotic conditions under vertical reef accretion towards sea level (e.g. hydrodynamic energy, light availability, and sedimentation rate). These findings therefore highlight the importance for considering reef ‘geomorphological development’ when interpreting contemporary reef ecological status. Furthermore, this research emphasises the robust nature of turbid nearshore reefs and suggests that they may be more resilient to changes in water quality than those associated with environmental settings where local background sedimentary conditions are less extreme (e.g. towards the inner/mid-shelf boundary). To this end, this thesis presents new baseline records with which to assess contemporary ecological and environmental change within turbid nearshore settings on the central GBR.
Supervisor: Perry, Chris Sponsor: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: benthic foraminifera ; carbonate and terrigenous sediment ; coral ; Paluma Shoals reef complex ; turbid nearshore reefs ; water quality