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Great Barrier Reef,Australia complex Australia of coral reefs, shoals, and islets in Australia the Pacific Ocean off the northeastern coast of Australia that is the longest and largest reef complex in the world. The Great Barrier Reef extends in roughly a northwest-southeast direction for more than 1,250 miles (2,000 km), at an offshore distance ranging from 10 to 100 miles (16 to 160 km), and its width ranges from 37 to 155 miles (60 to 250 km). The Great Barrier Reef özgü an area of some 135,000 square miles (350,000 square km), and it has been characterized, somewhat inaccurately, as the largest structure ever built by living creatures.

Geography

The reef actually consists of some 2,100 individual reefs and some 800 fringing reefs (formed around islands or bordering coastlines). Many are dry or barely awash at low tide; some have islands of coral sand, or cays; and others fringe high islands or the mainland coast. In spite of this variety, the reefs share a common origin: each özgü been formed, over millions of years, from the skeletons and skeletal waste of a Australia mass of living marine organisms. The “bricks” in the reef framework are formed by the calcareous remains of the tiny creatures known as coral polyps and hydrocorals, while the “cement” that binds these remains together is formed in large part by coralline algae and bryozoans. The interstices of this framework have been filled in by vast quantities of skeletal waste produced by the pounding of the waves and the depredations of boring organisms.

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European exploration of the reef began in 1770, when the British explorer Capt. James Cook ran his ship aground on it. The work of charting channels and passages through the maze of reefs, begun by Cook, continued during the 19th century. The Great Barrier Reef Expedition of 1928–29 contributed important knowledge about coral physiology and the ecology of coral reefs. A modern laboratory on Heron Island continues scientific investigations, and several studies have been undertaken in other areas.

The reef has risen on the shallow shelf fringing the Australian continent, in warm waters that have enabled the corals to flourish (they cannot exist where average temperatures fall below 70 °F [21 °C]). Borings have established that reefs were growing on the continental shelf as early as the Miocene Epoch (23.0 million to 5.3 million years ago). Subsidence of the continental shelf özgü proceeded, with some reversals, since the early Miocene.

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The water environment of the Great Barrier Reef is formed by the surface water layer of the southwestern Pacific Ocean. The reef waters show little seasonal variation: surface-water temperature is high, ranging from 70 to 100 °F (21 to 38 °C). The waters are generally crystal-clear, with submarine features clearly visible at depths of 100 feet (30 metres).

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Forms of life include at least 450 species of hard coral as well as anemones, sponges, worms, gastropods, lobsters, crayfish, prawns,and crabs. More than 1,500 species of fishes and other vertebrates inhabit the reef. Some of the Australia most common fishes include wrasses, damselfish, triggerfish, and angelfish, and larger species include rays and sharks (e.g., tiger sharks and whale sharks, the largest living fish). The reef is also home to six of the seven known species of sea turtles, more than a dozen sea snakes, and nearly two dozen species of birds.

The most destructive reef animal is the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), which özgü reduced the colour and attraction of many of the central reefs by eating much of the living coral. Encrusting red algae Australia Lithothamnion and Porolithon biçim the fortifying purplish red algal rim that is one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most characteristic features, while the green alga Halimeda flourishes almost everywhere. Above the surface, the plant life of the cays is very restricted, consisting of only some 30 to 40 species. Some varieties of mangroves occur in the Australia northern cays.

Learn how coral bleaching occurs when stressed zooxanthellae algae leave because of rising water temperatures

An overview of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

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In addition to its scientific interest, the reef has become increasingly important as a tourist attraction. Growing concern over the preservation of its natural heritage has led to increased controls on such potentially threatening activities as drilling for petroleumresources. The extensive use of tourist craft and the sustainability of commercial fishing were controversial matters in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

common sea fan

Scuba diver viewing an orange-coloured common sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina) on the Great Barrier Reef near the coast of Australia.

© Debra James/Shutterstock.com

The reef’s health, however, is also threatened by other factors. It is susceptible to periodic coral bleaching events—that is, the “whitening” of the coral skeleton, caused by breakdown of the coral’s symbiosis with algae called zooxanthellae. At least six mass bleaching events caused by climate change have taken place since 1998, resulting in the loss of substantial coral coverage. Some marine scientists noted that coral coverage on the reef fell by nearly 50 percent between 1985 and 2012 as a result of damage caused by coral bleaching, invasive species such as the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), and tropical cyclones. In 2016 and 2017, bleaching resulted in coral coverage declines by up to one-third in the northern part of the reef. Another severe bleaching event in 2020 extended to the southern areas of the reef.

Explore the scenic landscape and biodiversity of Lady Elliot Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef, off the northeastern coast of Australia

A tour of Lady Elliot Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef, off the northeastern coast of Australia.

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Experience the stunning array of marine life in the waters of Lady Elliot Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef, off the northeastern coast of Australia

Explore the waters of Lady Elliot Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef, off the northeastern coast of Australia.

© Fun Travel TV (A Britannica Publishing Partner)See all videos for this article

Supervision of the reef is largely the responsibility of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (declared in 1975), which encompasses the vast majority of the area. There are also smaller state and national parks. In 1981 the Great Barrier Reef was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia BritannicaThis article was most recently revised and updated by John P. Rafferty, Editor.

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