Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest living reef ecosystem and forms part of the largest World Heritage Area, recognising its exceptional natural beauty, biological diversity and complexity, and geomorphology values.

The GBR consists of a network of over 2,900 coral reefs rising from a continental shelf area of 224,000 km2, stretching 2,300 km north to south along its outer perimeter, and extending 23 to 260 km eastwards from the Queensland coast.

These iconic coral reefs occupy only about 7% of the World Heritage Area. They may grow as simple fringing reefs surrounding the coast or islands, or to form complex platform and ribbon-like structures rising from the shallow continental shelf. These ribbon reefs are extensive on the outer barrier. Many reefs also have coral cays supporting diverse communities of plants and animals. 

The area in between these reefs (known as the inter-reef or seabed), makes up approximately 61% of the area. It is predominantly shallow, ranges from 20 to 40 m in depth inshore and on wider portions of the shelf, sloping down to about 100 m in depth near the edge of the shelf. This seabed is often thought to have sparse life forms, certainly compared to the adjacent coral reefs, but in fact it contains a wide diversity of special habitats, such as seagrass beds, submerged patch reefs, soft bottom muddy and sandy communities, sponge gardens, bryozoan mats, and other special communities of animals and plants.

No one has yet attempted to count the numbers of species living in the GBR, but there are estimates of about 1,500 fish species, 360 reef-building corals, 4,000 molluscs, over 1,500 sponge species, and numerous other species of other phyla. It is considered to be one of the most biodiverse marine habitats in the world. While we now have a significant knowledge of the biology of coral reefs, we still know far less about the seabed surrounding them and providing a pathway that interconnects them. The Queensland Museum has several current projects actively researching both coral reefs and the seabed surrounding them. These reefs cannot be viewed in isolation, and the Museum has projects examining the links to other reef areas of the Indo-Pacific, and projects examining the rich fossil history of reefs through time.

The GBR World Heritage Area is protected as a marine national park, one of the best marine protected areas, but its management allows multiple uses under zoning legislation and permit systems, with responsibility by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

We are also concerned about threats to this iconic World Heritage Area, including threats to the GBR arising from climate change.

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.