University of Technology Sydney

91126 Coral Reef Ecosystems

Warning: The information on this page is indicative. The subject outline for a particular session, location and mode of offering is the authoritative source of all information about the subject for that offering. Required texts, recommended texts and references in particular are likely to change. Students will be provided with a subject outline once they enrol in the subject.

Subject handbook information prior to 2024 is available in the Archives.

UTS: Science: Life Sciences
Credit points: 6 cp
Result type: Grade and marks

Requisite(s): 91123 Nature and Evolution AND 91121c Aquatic Ecosystems
The lower case 'c' after the subject code indicates that the subject is a corequisite. See definitions for details.


Coral reefs are amongst the most productive, biodiverse and spectacular ecosystems on Earth, sustaining almost half a billion people throughout the tropics and subtropics. However, intensifying localised impacts such as overfishing and pollution combined with accelerating pressures from climate change paint a highly uncertain future for reef ecosystems and the services they provide. Effective management strategies to safeguard reefs therefore rest on understanding how environmental and societal factors shape the form and function of coral ecosystems.

This senior-level field subject considers the central question: what is a healthy reef? The subject explores how physical, chemical and biological processes shape reef ecosystems, from the benthos to fishes, and how societal interactions feed back to alter these processes. Coral reef ecosystems have evolved to persist along an environmental continuum from deep blue waters to shallow turbid systems. This subject explores how coral reef ecosystem diversity and function has evolved across environmental conditions, and therefore question how we can effectively define reefs as ‘pristine’ and ‘healthy’ over space and time. An important focus for this subject is emergent technologies and how they are transforming our ability to assess and describe biodiversity, ecosystem processes, and ultimately provide metrics of ‘reef health’. Addressing these topics provides students with a modern-day toolbox for forward-looking coral reef management strategies.

Subject learning objectives (SLOs)

Upon successful completion of this subject students should be able to:

1. Classify coral reef habitats and the associated major benthic invertebrate and fish taxa
2. Describe core ecological principles and how they govern coral reef ecosystem function across environments
3. Apply knowledge of organism and habitat diversity to produce habitat assessments describing reef condition
4. Discuss technological approaches used to quantify reef ecosystem diversity for different spatial/temporal scales
5. Develop and execute effective team-based inquiry of a research question/goal
6. Critically evaluate and integrate information from a wide range of sources to develop informed opinion of reef management decision-making
7. Conduct a research project, develop key aims and hypotheses, research and critically appraise the primary literature, and report findings in a scientific paper format
8. Explain the principles and applications of modern day coral reef ecosystem management

Course intended learning outcomes (CILOs)

This subject also contributes specifically to the development of following course intended learning outcomes:

  • Demonstrate theoretical and technical knowledge of the principles of biodiversity, ecosystem function and climate change impacts in marine systems through the integration and evaluation of principles of sustainability and conservation to protect marine environments. (1.1)
  • Critically evaluate scientific evidence and literature and apply effective and appropriate experimental design and analytical techniques to discover and hypothesise solutions to new and emerging marine and climate change issues. (2.1)
  • Demonstrate professionalism, including personal organisation, autonomy, teamwork, while ensuring due consideration to ethical guidelines, work health and safety, sustainability goals and environmental impact requirements. (3.1)
  • Evaluate evolving concepts in marine biology and apply scientific skills to design creative solutions to contemporary or complex marine issues by incorporating innovative methods, reflective practices, and self-directed investigation. (4.1)
  • Communicate effectively and professionally (oral, written, visual), generating defensible, convincing arguments for relaying research findings and/or articulating complex issues, concepts or skill around marine and climate science, within a multi-disciplinary setting. (5.1)

Contribution to the development of graduate attributes

The Faculty of Science lists six graduate attributes that you will develop during your course at UTS. This subject is intended to develop five of those attributes:

1. Disciplinary knowledge

  1. Coral reef ecosystem diversity and functioning, and how they are examined, are learned through seminars and workshops (including a taxonomy workshop). Both the principles and practice of the disciplinary knowledge are assessed via the depth and scope of data collected as part of the research report, as well as through the final examination.
  2. Managing reef ecosystems against impacts are learned through workshops and discussions, which feed forward from self-directed learning. You are to access information posted on Canvas ahead of scheduled workshops in order to effectively participate in discussions. Your understanding of concepts presented is assessed through both the video situation report, research report, as well as through the final examination.
  3. Stakeholder (including Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner) stewardship of country is explored through lectures and discussion groups in how Australian reefs are managed and governed. Your understanding of these concepts is assessed through both the video situation report, as well as through the final examination.

2. Research, Inquiry and Critical Thinking

  1. Scientific curiosity is developed through discussion sessions (chaired by the lecturers) designed to promote enquiry and conceptual thinking beyond the ‘factual’ information associated with how reef ecosystems are effectively managed. Informed disciplinary knowledge through class discussion coupled to critical thinking skills (contesting dogma, relevance and value of evidence and/or using observational skills) is assessed through the video situation report.
  2. You will also master scientific method and experimental design (to follow a line of scientific enquiry) through generating and addressing a hypothesis associated with the assessed research report.
  3. Critical to scientific practice is the development of logical thought and problem solving skills in research design and execution. These skills are learned via the academic-led introductions to both the research report and video situation report assessments and subsequent student led enquiry via data/information collection. This process is assessed through the submitted research report/video presentation.
  4. Research skills: gathering, evaluating and using information from sources such as databases, research and review articles, textbooks, unpublished data reports and technical reference books for the research report. Similarly, gathering, integrating and evaluating information from reports, interviews, articles, observations, seminars and discussions are required for the video situation report. Criteria for marking both reports directly assess this attribute.
  5. Data handling and synthesis skills will be further refined through the research report project, ongoing field-based data collection occurs daily and a final feedback and workshop session is dedicated to analysis of data and preparation of write-up. Support includes training and instruction on how to use appropriate software where relevant (e.g. Microsoft Excel for the research report and video editing software for the situation report). Data presentation and quantitative skills are discussed during the data collection exercise and as part of the final feedback/workshop session and assessed via the report marking criteria.

3. Professional, Ethical and Social Responsibility

  1. Self-discipline is also learned through active participation in seminars and discussions, which require you to take notes to extend and bed-down your understanding of the subject concepts.
  2. Teamwork is developed as you work in groups through collection, collation and analysis of data for the research report as well as collection, preparation and presentation of the video situation report. Tasks should be delegated amongst each group to enable all students to effectively deliver the common goal (single data set and single video presentation, respectively) with sufficient depth/scope. Identifying skill sets and strengths amongst the team is a critical skill that is developed. Group discussion of data/content at the final collection stage will help to develop group contribution to interpretation of findings. A level of trust and collegiality and the consequences of ‘bad data collection’ are learned through discussion within the initial workshops that introduce you to the assessment tasks as well as through subsequent iterative practice.
  3. Ethics and professional conduct in science are learned through seminars and the research data/video collection. A full discussion is given on ethical and safe working practices in reef environments as part of the research report initial workshop whilst guidance on appropriate conduct for video film data collection and reporting (including interviewing) is given as part of the video situation report initial workshop.
  4. Time management is central to successful delivery of the research report. You will develop this skill as part of the research data collection design by instruction on consulting tide tables, daily commitments to attend workshop and discussion classes, and balancing the successful delivery of the video situation report alongside that of the data collection for your research report.
  5. Conversations and interviews with local stakeholders on Heron Island as part of the situation report video-based assessment will provide the detail and context in shaping local community views; alongside information learned from self-directed learning and discussion sessions considering reef management, will also identify and engage with current and future challenges in society.

4. Reflection, Innovation, Creativity

  1. Initiative is continually developed via the video situation report and project report assessment tasks, both of which require significant independence and responsibility of conduct to complete effectively. The ability to operate as a small research team with numerous roles, and ask insightful questions/seek knowledge (of a previously “unanswered question”) is assessed by the depth and scope of the video situation report; the ability to efficiently and effectively organise a team task with numerous roles, design and execute research that creatively considers a “real world problem” is assessed via the scope of data collected within the research report.

5. Communication

  1. Excellence in visual presentation is developed through presentation and discussion of video quality as part of seminar and workshop material, as well as in preparation of the video situation report. These skills are further developed during the introductory workshops of the assessment tasks and assessed as the visual content and appeal of the situation report.
  2. Excellence in written scientific communication is developed through the process of writing a comprehensive scientific research report. These skills are further developed through the introduction of the assessment task itself (communication of hypothesis-driven experimental procedure and analysis through scientific writing, including paraphrasing and citing literature). Clear and logical writing that follows standard practice in scientific communication is assessed via detailed report marking criteria. Effective written communication is also assessed via the final examination.
  3. Oral communication skills are developed by active listening and interacting with peers through effective and discursive delivery of informed opinion upon topics (class discussions and workshops), as well as interviews/conversations with management stakeholders of Heron Island. Effective oral communication is assessed via the depth and scope of the video situation report content.

Teaching and learning strategies

You will learn by way of seminars, workshops and independent learning activities linked to discussion/debate.

Seminars: Introductory seminars on key subjects before the field trip are central to the course by providing the foundation with which you later build your applied understanding. The seminars delivering this material are on the ‘front line’ of research and hence the cutting edge material is “research led”, and predominantly from research papers rather than standard textbooks; your direct experience contextualises this knowledge with the challenges that come with field research, and provides unique insight into what it takes to succeed in field-based research. Seminar material is delivered via an inquiry-based approach to continually nurture a participatory approach and your reasoning where a single question may have many answers/perspectives. Small group-based discussions drawn from videos on relevant topics at points throughout each seminar will promote collaborative learning. The seminars are therefore engaging, interactive and lively, involving visual aids and videos, which support alternative modes of learning. Because many of the seminars have minimal text, you will need to take notes as we go along, usually by annotating the slide series. Attending seminars is valuable to developing a full understanding of the learning material, and may assist you in achieving your desired result in this subject. Associated electronic material or links for each seminar are uploaded to CANVAS. Feedback is provided continuously through in-class discussions and a dedicated but non-compulsory revision workshop.

Workshops: In this subject, a series of ‘hands on’ workshops conducted whilst you are on your field trip will provide an important core underpinning subsequent assessed exercises. Three group-based workshops are designed to interactively immerse you in several key skills underpinning the assessment tasks: (i) Species identification, (ii) Documentary production (video shooting and editing), and (iii) Project planning and team organization, where you will be introduced to (and utilize) some of the key technologies associated with modern day coral reef ecological assessment. These skills are key to your development as a future scientist; for example, formal species recognition and habitat quality quantification, generation of a full scientific research report, communicating scientific observations to the wider public. For each session, you will be presented with the key skills/material followed by an opportunity to practice and implement these skills in small groups. You will engage with both Lecturers and Teaching Associates for these workshops and be provided with continuous and iterative feedback (until you reach a satisfactory level to implement and execute these skills independently for your assessments). For example, in the case of the species identification (taxonomy) workshop, you will initially be presented with slides and exemplars of key species, a brief identification quiz and then a field trip to independently recognise (under supervision and guidance) individual taxa from amongst a diverse community assemblage. Each session will be followed by a brief discussion amongst the entire group to share common challenges encountered and suggested solutions. Additional feedback is provided for the documentary production as part of the assessment introduction (orientation story board). Active engagement in these exercises is critical towards effective contribution to teamwork, which in turn affects the maximum mark you can achieve for the video situation report and project report. In class you will need to write notes, respond to questions and fully engage with your peers.

Online Discussion Boards: Online Discussion Board sessions will be provided after the field course for additional feedback on the project assessment report ahead of submission. These discussions will involve teaching staff and students identifying the key problems and discussing solutions; students will be expected to draw from one another and thus support collaborative learning.

Learning activities: You will be provided with orientation seminars - and all lecture material (including all relevant scientific papers) before the field trip, and expected to briefly research major topics for exploration during the field-based discussion group exercises. A substantial task associated with this subject is acquiring and integrating information to inform opinion on “effective coral reef management strategies” (and in part require a working knowledge of impacts upon coral reefs). You will be provided with some background information during the seminars and then directed to a series of recent peer-reviewed Journal articles describing various views of either general management of coral reefs or specific practices of the Great Barrier Reef, all of which will be posted on CANVAS ahead of the field trip. For this exercise the class will be split into groups and each group asked to critically read and discuss different papers ahead of the field trip. The groups will be provided with a ‘pro-forma’ (available via CANVAS and within the subject handbook) with a list of questions/comments to consider during their critical evaluation of the paper(s). Class-led discussions/debates will then be run during the field trip to consider these various views (chaired by the Lecturers); The Lecturers will put forward questions or statements that the groups will then discuss/debate as a class based on their reading. Students will be guided to take notes on key topics, principles and findings throughout. Failure to complete the required reading for your group and fully attend/participate in the class discussion will limit how effective you can contribute to your assessed research report and final exam, (which requires a full working knowledge of modern day coral reef management approaches), and will negatively affect the maximum mark you can achieve.

Content (topics)

You will learn about coral reef ecology in an applied context. We initially consider components of what makes reefs diverse, by establishing the taxonomic framework of benthic and pelagic organisms and the various biogeochemical and ecological roles these organisms provide (taxonomic vs. functional diversity). We then examine ‘reef condition’ from the perspective of biodiversity along natural environmental gradients (across habitat or across latitude) versus anthropogenic activity to define the term ‘reef health’. We use this core information to then consider different management concepts and practices, with a focus on how management strategies have evolved to protect the Great Barrier Reef. A continuous theme throughout the subject is ever-evolving technological approaches, and in particular imaging and molecular based methods, to assess diversity, and how they continue to (re)shape our perspective on characterising diversity over space and time; you will learn the “toolbox” of techniques/platforms required to best assess the condition of, and in turn manage, coral reef ecosystems.


Assessment task 1: Group video presentation “Discuss the status of Heron Island Reefs”


This assessment task contributes to the development of the following graduate attributes:

  1. Disciplinary knowledge
  2. Research, Inquiry and Critical Thinking
  3. Professional, Ethical and Social Responsibility
  1. Communication

This assessment task addresses subject learning objective(s):

5, 6 and 8

This assessment task contributes to the development of course intended learning outcome(s):

1.1, 2.1, 3.1 and 5.1

Type: Case study
Groupwork: Group, group and individually assessed
Weight: 30%

4 minute video presentation


The video ‘situation report’ is to be delivered to the class in the style of a popular science mini-documentary, by delivering factual information in an engaging format. Further details are laid out in the subject manual (and presented as part of the assessment introduction whilst on Heron Island), along with the assessment criteria that will be used for marking the reports and how each maps to learning outcomes and development of Graduate Attributes; however, key assessment targets are: Depth and scope of content, effective communication of key concepts to target audience, professionalism of delivery (video and audio), and balanced contribution from individuals amongst the group. You will need to provide evidence for how you will complete a high quality video before you even begin the data collection component via an initial storyboard constructed during the initial workshop for this exercise (for approval).

Assessment task 2: Project Research Report


This assessment task contributes to the development of the following graduate attributes:

  1. Disciplinary knowledge
  2. Research, Inquiry and Critical Thinking
  3. Professional, Ethical and Social Responsibility
  4. Reflection, Innovation and Creativity
  5. Communication

This assessment task addresses subject learning objective(s):

3, 5, 6 and 7

This assessment task contributes to the development of course intended learning outcome(s):

1.1, 2.1, 3.1, 4.1 and 5.1

Type: Report
Groupwork: Group, individually assessed
Weight: 40%

The project report must not exceed 2500 words (excluding figures, tables and reference list).


The project report is to be written in the style of a standard scientific journal, which must be well-edited and presented with appropriate graphical support/data and discussion. Further details are laid out in the subject manual (and presented as part of the assessment introduction whilst on Heron Island), along with the assessment criteria that will be used for marking the reports and how each contributes to graduate attribute development. You will need to provide evidence that you can complete a high quality research report before you even begin the data collection component, by discussing your intended research project scope and data collection details during the initial workshop for this exercise (for approval). The marking scheme (and how they map to learning outcomes and development of Graduate Attributes) used will be provided in the laboratory manual.

The project report for assessment will be required to be submitted through Turnitin. NOTE that a student who submits a report that is detected to contain fabricated or plagiarised work (copied from another student, the internet or other source) or who has clearly allowed another student to copy their work will be penalized according to university rules (see relevant sections on plagiarism and copyright, below). Such action may result in a zero mark for the report, which would ultimately result in a fail for the subject.

Assessment task 3: Exam


This assessment task contributes to the development of the following graduate attributes:

1. Disciplinary knowledge
3. Professional, Ethical and Social Responsibility
5. Communication


This assessment task addresses subject learning objective(s):

1, 2, 4, 6 and 8

This assessment task contributes to the development of course intended learning outcome(s):

1.1, 3.1 and 5.1

Type: Examination
Groupwork: Individual
Weight: 30%

The exam will consist of a series of questions that address topics covered during seminars, workshops and discussion groups, both prior to, and during, the field trip. You will need to answer these questions with sufficient depth of specific disciplinary knowledge. Answers are assessed on accuracy and relevance of information; therefore, whilst the core of this knowledge is covered during the subject, you are strongly encouraged to read around core material through wider reading (research gathering) of relevant and particularly topical/contemporary literature, e.g. the latest peer reviewed journal articles and media coverage. All questions are limited by word count or page space and therefore excellence in communicating through concise writing (which may include the use of annotated but integrated diagrams) is key to convey sufficient depth of knowledge.

Minimum requirements

You are expected to attend all seminars and the field trip.

There is no opportunity to catch up if the field trip is missed.

Recommended texts

All recommended and required reading takes the form of peer-reviewed Journal articles, which are updated annually and made available through CANVAS with the associated lecture material. We specifically avoid reliance on textbook material since the applied information is often quickly outdated. However, several books that may serve as useful resources to supplement core foundational knowledge for the subject:

Côté IM Reynolds JM. 2006. Coral Reef Conservation. Cambridge University press, UK.

Dubinsky Z, Stambler N. 2011. Coral Reefs: An Ecosystem in Transition. Springer Science Publishing, New York.

Hutchings K, Kingsford M, Hoegh-Guldberg O. 2019. Second Edition. Great Barrier Reef: Biology, Environment And Management. CSIRO Publishing.

Sheppard CRC, Davy SK, Pilling GM. 2017. The Biology of Coral Reefs. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, UK.