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World Heritage

Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Values

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981. The World Heritage criteria against which the Great Barrier Reef was listed remain the formal criteria for this property. These criteria have been included in the Values Table below. The World Heritage criteria are periodically revised and the criteria against which the property was listed in 1981 are not necessarily identical with the current criteria. Examples of the World Heritage values for which the Great Barrier Reef was listed are included in the Values Table for each criterion. These examples are illustrative of the World Heritage values of the property, and they do not necessarily constitute a comprehensive list of these values. Other sources including the nomination document and references listed below the Values Table are available and could be consulted for a more detailed understanding of the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef.

Values Table
Natural criteria against which the Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981. Examples of World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef for which the property was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981.
Criterion (i) an outstanding example representing a major stage of the earth's evolutionary history. The Great Barrier Reef is by far the largest single collection of coral reefs in the world. The World Heritage values of the property include:
  • 2904 coral reefs covering approximately 20 055km2;
  • 300 coral cays and 600 continental islands;
  • reef morphologies reflecting historical and on-going geomorphic and oceanographic processes;
  • processes of geological evolution linking islands, cays, reefs and changing sea levels, together with sand barriers, deltaic and associated sand dunes;
  • record of sea level changes and the complete history of the reef's evolution are recorded in the reef structure;
  • record of climate history, environmental conditions and processes extending back over several hundred years within old massive corals;
  • formations such as serpentine rocks of South Percy island, intact and active dune systems, undisturbed tidal sediments and "blue holes"; and
  • record of sea level changes reflected in distribution of continental island flora and fauna.
Criterion (ii) an outstanding example representing significant ongoing geological processes, biological evolution and man's interaction with his natural environment.      Criterion (ii) an outstanding example representing significant ongoing geological processes, biological evolution and man's interaction with his natural environment. Biologically the Great Barrier Reef supports the most diverse ecosystem known to man and its enormous diversity is thought to reflect the maturity of an ecosystem, which has evolved over millions of years on the northeast Continental Shelf of Australia. The World Heritage values include:
  • the heterogeneity and interconnectivity of the reef assemblage;
  • size and morphological diversity (elevation ranging from the sea bed to 1142m at Mt. Bowen and a large cross-shelf extent encompass the fullest possible representation of marine environmental processes);
  • on going processes of accretion and erosion of coral reefs, sand banks and coral cays, erosion and deposition processes along the coastline, river deltas and estuaries and continental islands;
  • extensive Halimeda beds representing active calcification and sediment accretion for over 10 000 years;
  • evidence of the dispersion and evolution of hard corals and associated flora and fauna from the "Indo-West Pacific centre of diversity" along the north-south extent of the reef;
  • inter-connections with the Wet Tropics via the coastal interface and Lord Howe Island via the East Australia current;
  • indigenous temperate species derived from tropical species;
  • living coral colonies (including some of the world's oldest);
  • inshore coral communities of southern reefs;
  • five floristic regions identified for continental islands and two for coral cays;
  • the diversity of flora and fauna, including:
  • Macroalgae (estimated 400-500 species);
  • Porifera (estimated 1500 species, some endemic, mostly undescribed);
  • Cnidaria: Corals - part of the global centre of coral diversity and including:
    • hexacorals (70 genera and 350 species, including 10 endemic species);
    • octocorals (80 genera, number of species not yet estimated);
  • Tunicata: Ascidians (at least 330 species);
  • Bryozoa (an estimated 300-500 species, many undescribed);
  • Crustacea (at least 1330 species from 3 subclasses);
  • Worms:
    • Polychaetes (estimated 500 species);
    • Platyhelminthes: include free-living Tubelleria (number of species not yet estimated), polyclad Tubelleria (up to 300 species) and parasitic helminthes (estimated 1000's of species, most undescribed);

  • Phytoplankton (a diverse group existing in two broad communities);
  • Mollusca (between 5000-8000 species);
  • Echinodermata (estimated 800 extant species, including many rare taxa and type specimens);
  • fishes (between 1200 and 2000 species from 130 families, with high species diversity and heterogeneity; includes the Whale Shark Rhynchodon typus);
  • seabirds (between 1.4 and 1.7 million seabirds breeding on islands);
  • marine reptiles (including 6 sea turtle species, 17 sea snake species, and 1 species of crocodile);
  • marine mammals (including 1 species of dugong (Dugong dugon), and 26 species of whales and dolphins);
  • terrestrial flora: see "Habitats: Islands" and;
  • terrestrial fauna, including:
    • invertebrates (pseudoscorpions, mites, ticks, spiders, centipedes, isopods, phalangids, millipedes, collembolans and 109 families of insects from 20 orders, and large over-wintering aggregations of butterflies); and
    • vertebrates (including seabirds (see above), reptiles: crocodiles and turtles, 9 snakes and 31 lizards, mammals);
  • the integrity of the inter-connections between reef and island networks in terms of dispersion, recruitment, and the subsequent gene flow of many taxa;
  • processes of dispersal, colonisation and establishment of plant communities within the context of island biogeography (e.g. dispersal of seeds by air, sea and vectors such as birds are examples of dispersion, colonisation and succession);
  • the isolation of certain island populations (e.g. recent speciation evident in two subspecies of the butterfly Tirumala hamata and the evolution of distinct races of the bird Zosterops spp);
  • remnant vegetation types (hoop pines) and relic species (sponges) on islands.
  • evidence of morphological and genetic changes in mangrove and seagrass flora across regional scales; and
  • feeding and/or breeding grounds for international migratory seabirds, cetaceans and sea turtles.
Criterion (iii) contain unique, rare and superlative natural phenomena, formations and features and areas of exceptional natural beauty. The Great Barrier Reef provides some of the most spectacular scenery on earth and is of exceptional natural beauty. The World Heritage values include:
  • the vast extent of the reef and island systems which produces an unparalleled aerial vista;
  • islands ranging from towering forested continental islands complete with freshwater streams, to small coral cays with rainforest and unvegetated sand cays;
  • coastal and adjacent islands with mangrove systems of exceptional beauty;
  • the rich variety of landscapes and seascapes including rugged mountains with dense and diverse vegetation and adjacent fringing reefs;
  • the abundance and diversity of shape, size and colour of marine fauna and flora in the coral reefs;
  • spectacular breeding colonies of seabirds and great aggregations of over-wintering butterflies; and
  • migrating whales, dolphins, dugong, whale sharks, sea turtles, seabirds and concentrations of large fish.
Criterion (iv) provide habitats where populations of rare and endangered species of plants and animals still survive.Criterion (iv) provide habitats where populations of rare and endangered species of plants and animals still survive. The Great Barrier Reef contains many outstanding examples of important and significant natural habitats for in situ conservation of species of conservation significance, particularly resulting from the latitudinal and cross-shelf completeness of the region.The World Heritage values include:
  • habitats for species of conservation significance within the 77 broadscale bioregional associations that have been identified for the property and which include:
  • over 2900 coral reefs (covering 20 055km2) which are structurally and ecologically complex;
  • large numbers of islands, including:
    • 600 continental islands supporting 2195 plant species in 5 distinct floristic regions;
    • 300 coral cays and sand cays;
    • seabird and sea turtle rookeries, including breeding populations of green sea turtles and Hawksbill turtles; and
    • coral cays with 300-350 plant species in 2 distinct floristic regions;
  • seagrass beds (over 5000km2) comprising 15 species, 2 endemic;
  • mangroves (over 2070km2) including 37 species;
  • Halimeda banks in the northern region and the unique deep water bed in the central region; and
  • large areas of ecologically complex inter-reefal and lagoonal benthos; and
  • species of plants and animals of conservation significance.

Further information

Description of Great Barrier Reef

The following documents may be available in the Department of the Environment and Heritage library:

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