Perhaps Australia’s greatest treasure, the Great Barrier Reef, lies off the coast of Queensland. It is made up of millions of tiny living organisms known as corals. It is the largest coral reef on earth and extends over 23,000 square kilometers. It attracts thousands of tourists each year. There are numerous distinctive features of this vast ecosystem. Here are ten of the most interesting:
The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space.
The Great Barrier Reef is the only living thing that can be identified with the naked eye from open space. It has been seen from low earth orbit such as from the Space Shuttle and the Space Station. Further out in space it cannot be located. Astronauts have spotted a multitude of algal blooms which could in time seriously impact the reef’s health.
The corals that make up the Great Barrier Reef are soft-bodied carnivores.
Many early scientists thought corals were plants. However, each polyp or coral has stinging cells, or nematocysts, that they are able to extend to grab prey such as small fishor zooplankton. Corals secrete limestone to make limestone skeletons and also create limestone cups into which they can pull themselves and hide from their own predators.
The Great Barrier Reef is actually a reef group.
Reefs are predominantly stony corals supported by their excretion of limestone which make up the skeletons that support them. Corals join together to form colonies which make up the reefs. They help protect coastlines from being destroyed by storms. There are actually 900 islands and approximately 2900 reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. It is the largest reef group in the world.
There are an astounding number of species of wildlife on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is well known for amazing biodiversity, including some of the most scarce and endangered species. There are said to be approximately 124 species of stingrays and sharks, 48 species of pipefish, 29 species of dolphins, whales and porpoises, 216 bird species, 6 species of sea turtles, 16 species of sea snakes, 500 seaweed species and an amazing 1,500 species of fish. Every cubic meter on the reef is thought to have hundreds of species of plants and animals.
One of the longest-lived fish species can be found in the Great Barrier Reef.
The red bass would probably be the oldest fish on the reef because it can live well over 50 years. These bass can grow to 70-80 cm. in length. The larger red bass are not generally eaten because it is believed they may contain high levels of ciguatera, which can cause poisoning.
Dugongs are found in the Great Barrier Reef and are related to elephants.
Dugongs, known as sea cows, are related to elephants and to manatees and are an endangered species. They feed on sea grasses. Female dugongs give birth underwater to one calf only once in every three to seven years. They are very slow moving and have little defense against predators. Two of their enemies are sharks and killer whales. A large part of their diminishing population can be found in the Great Barrier Reef.
The giant clams of the Great Barrier Reef can grow up to four feet in length.
Clams on the Great Barrier Reef are capable of growing to an amazing four feet in length and can reach over 500 pounds. They attain these gigantic proportions by consuming sugar and protein produced by the billions of algae that live in their tissues. Once they find a cozy spot to live on the reef they will keep growing and stay in that one spot for the rest of their lives.
There is a “mystery whale” species that visits the Great Barrier Reef every year.
The dwarf minke whale visits the Great Barrier Reef in July and August every year. No one knows why this whale visits the reef or where it comes from before the visit. They eat krill and plankton by straining it through comb-like structures on plates in their upper jaw. Therefore, they are called baleen whales.
Taking a souvenir piece of coral from the Great Barrier Reef is a criminal offense.
Despite the fact that the Great Barrier Reef is a major tourist attraction and people are allowed and encouraged to scuba dive, divers are not allowed to take a piece of the coral. It is a serious offense punishable by law because of the ongoing effort to protect the coral and the resident wildlife for future generations to view and enjoy.
The Great Barrier Reef can be fatal to humans.
There are several species of marine life on the reef that can be harmful or even fatal for humans who come in contact with them. One such creature is the Crown of Thorns starfish which can grow to over 16 inches in diameter. It is covered with spines coated in toxic slime that cause severe pain and nausea which often requires medical assistance. Some sea anemones on the reef have stinging cells on their tentacles that can cause pain, respiratory distress and shock. Even some seaweeds on the reef are dangerous and can cause injury to humans.
Several ancient civilizations believed that paradise existed below the earth. Perhaps they had a location such as the Great Barrier Reef in mind. This irreplaceable natural wonder must be protected lest it become a “paradise lost”.