Kimberley reef life considered on microscopic level

Written by Natasha Prokop (SNWA)

Using cutting-edge genomic analyses researchers are investigating how the Kimberley marine environment’s unique conditions affect organism movement in the region.

CSIRO researcher Dr Oliver Berry says the Kimberley’s massive 10m-plus tidal ranges and complex geography are likely to produce unique dispersal patterns.

These movement patterns influence the inter-dependence (connectivity) between reef populations.

“The movements of water in the Kimberley are amazingly complex and powerful,” Dr Berry says.

“But does this mean that populations are well-mixed? Or does it mean that they are very insular because the tides and currents disrupt movements?”

“By the end of the year we hope to have an answer.”

Dr Berry says defining the degree of connectivity in the region will help identify the appropriate scale for management.

One of seven focal species, the seagrass Halophila ovalis, selected for its significance as a key habitat. Credit: Kathryn McMahon


But he says despite the Kimberley’s high biodiversity and distinctiveness this is the first dedicated genetic study on marine connectivity.

The ongoing study has involved collecting more than 5,000 minute tissue biopsies of important organisms from the upper Dampier Peninsula and Buccaneer Archipelago for genetic analysis.

“We sampled species that have a spectrum of types of life histories that will expose them in different ways to the currents,” Dr Berry says.

The researchers targeted seven ‘focal species’ including the coral reef damselfish (Pomacentrus milleri), harvested molluscs (Trochus niloticus), coral (Acropora aspera), harvested fish (Lutjanus carponotatus) and seagrass (Thalassia hemprichii and Halophila ovalis) for their importance as habitat-formers or harvested species.

The movements of marine organisms, which affects connectivity amongst reefs and regions, happens mostly at larval life stages during which time larvae are transported by tides and currents.

But researchers can’t put tags or transmitters on microscopic larvae to track their movements, so they must infer this from the genetic relationships between populations.

Reefs in the Kimberley are exposed for only a few hours a day before massive tides submerge them again. Credit: Zoe Richards


Dr Berry says this genetic analysis poses its own challenges.

“In the marine environment, historically it has been difficult for genetics to resolve relationships between populations,” he says.

Therefore they used cutting-edge genomic techniques that have only recently been adopted by ecologists.

The scientists plans to use thousands of single sequence polymorphisms or SNPs (“snips”), which are regions of DNA where a single nucleotide differs in a sequence.

For example, ‘AGTTA’ might be a version of a gene carried by one individual, while another might carry ‘ACTTA.’ These variations act like ‘tags’ for the movements of organisms.

The benefit of using SNPs is the large number of markers that can be used, which should give researchers the ability to detect subtle patterns of connectivity.


This project relates to themes 2 and 3 of the Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy.

Study co-investigators include James Gilmour, Kathryn McMahon, Glenn Moore, Zoe Richards, Mike Travers and Jim Underwood.

The project was undertaken with the assistance and support of the Bardi Jawi rangers and traditional owners and Mayala traditional owners whose local knowledge was invaluable to the fieldwork component.


The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley. 



Kimberley Marine Research Program