New constraints on the spatial distribution and morphology of the Halimeda bioherms of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Abstract

Halimeda bioherms occur as extensive geological structures on the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR), Australia. We present the most complete, high-resolution spatial mapping of the northern GBR Halimeda bioherms, based on new airborne lidar and multibeam echosounder bathymetry data. Our analysis reveals that bioherm morphology does not conform to the previous model of parallel ridges and troughs, but is far more complex than previously thought. We define and describe three morphological sub-types: reticulate, annulate, and undulate, which are distributed in a cross-shelf pattern of reduced complexity from east to west. The northern GBR bioherms cover an area of 6095 km2, three times larger than the original estimate, exceeding the area and volume of calcium carbonate in the adjacent modern shelf-edge barrier reefs. We have mapped a 1740 km2 bioherm complex north of Raine Island in the Cape York region not previously recorded, extending the northern limit by more than 1° of latitude. Bioherm formation and distribution are controlled by a complex interaction of outer-shelf geometry, regional and local currents, coupled with the morphology and depth of continental slope submarine canyons determining the delivery of cool, nutrient-rich water upwelling through inter-reef passages. Distribution and mapping of Halimeda bioherms in relation to Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority bioregion classifications and management zones are inconsistent and currently poorly defined due to a lack of high-resolution data not available until now. These new estimates of bioherm spatial distribution and morphology have implications for understanding the role these geological features play as structurally complex and productive inter-reef habitats, and as calcium carbonate sinks which record a complete history of the Holocene post-glacial marine transgression in the northern GBR.

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Acknowledgments

Funding for this Project was provided by a research scholarship from the School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney. The authors wish to acknowledge the work of the scientists and crew of the many survey voyages and flights from which data for this project were gathered, particularly the CSIRO Marine National Facility, Geoscience Australia, Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Hydrographic Service. M.A.M acknowledges and thanks L. Nothdurft for suggestions and support. J.M.W acknowledges the Australian Research Council (DP1094001) for support.

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Correspondence to Mardi A. McNeil.

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Communicated by Geology Editor Prof. Eberhard Gischler

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McNeil, M.A., Webster, J.M., Beaman, R.J. et al. New constraints on the spatial distribution and morphology of the Halimeda bioherms of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Coral Reefs 35, 1343–1355 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-016-1492-2

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Keywords

  • Halimeda bioherm
  • Geomorphology
  • Reticulate
  • Habitat complexity
  • Holocene