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15 Scenic Facts About the Great Barrier Reef

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Australia’s biggest natural wonder is a huge draw for tourists and fish alike. Here’s everything you need to know about the world’s most famous reef. 

1. THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS THE LARGEST ORGANIC STRUCTURE ON EARTH. 

The Great Barrier Reef is occasionally called the largest single organism on the planet. However, the reef is more accurately identified as an amalgam of distinct organisms. Living building blocks called coral polyps create (through calcium secretions) upwards of 3,000 individual coral reefs, which along with more than 900 islands and cays make up the famed ecosystem.

2. NOT AS MUCH OF THE REEF IS COVERED IN CORAL AS YOU MIGHT THINK. 

The name may be misleading you. Within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, coral covers only about six or seven percent of the territory. 

3. THE COLOSSAL REEF SYSTEM IS LARGER THAN MOST COUNTRIES. 

By spanning over 134,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef eclipses the sizes of over 100 countries. Ranked among the world’s nations, the reef system would place 63rd, just between Germany (boasting an area of 138,000 square miles) and the Republic of the Congo (132,000 square miles). Furthermore, the Great Barrier Reef is larger than most American states, outdone only by Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana. 

4. HALF OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF HAS DISAPPEARED SINCE THE MID 1980s. 

Although the Great Barrier Reef’s size still inspires awe, it is only about half as grand as it was a mere 30 years ago. In 2012, a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science concluded that 50 percent of the reef system had deteriorated since 1985 due to damage from storms, predatory crown-of-thorns starfish, and coral bleaching. 

5. INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIAN PEOPLES LEGALLY OWN TRACTS OF REEF. 

Rich with natural resources, the Great Barrier Reef was a site of great cultural and spiritual significance to Aboriginal Australians and the nearby Torres Strait Islanders. A number of subgroups are recognized by the Australian government as the reef’s “traditional owners,” and are compensated for allowance of national use of the marine property. 

6. FOUR DIFFERENT EXPLORERS COMPLETELY IGNORED THE GREAT BARRIER REEF. 

When Western countries began sending voyagers through Oceania, they came into contact with—but, oddly enough, didn’t take much notice of—Australia’s Queensland coast and the Great Barrier Reef. Portuguese nobleman Cristóvão de Mendonça may have kicked off this trend when his supposed 1522 encounter with the reef sparked so little interest that he didn’t even bother to document his discovery. Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon and Galician seaman Luís Vaz de Torres each happened upon the reef between 1605 and 1606, likewise failing to commit their find to official record. The very first documentation of Western interaction with the Great Barrier Reef came from French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s 1768 exploration of the region. However, even Bougainville would not grant much focus to the natural wonder, as his crew was short on supplies and turned immediately to seek the security of the nearby South Asian coast. 

7. CAPTAIN COOK DISCOVERED THE REEF WHEN HIS BOAT BROKE DOWN ON TOP OF IT. 

Today, English adventurer Captain James Cook is credited with being the first Westerner to properly encounter the Great Barrier Reef. However, Cook’s run-in with the reef was not the product of ambitious exploration, but rather the result of a boating accident. In 1770, Cook’s ship, HM Bark Endeavour, collided with the top of the reef during pursuit of a “secret continent” near New Zealand, which he was charged with claiming in the name of England. The collision resulted in substantial damages to Cook’s vessel, forced him to dock for repairs. This distraction may have prevented the captain from appreciating the great majesty of his find. 

8. A SUNKEN SHIP RESTS BENEATH THE REEF. 

While the Endeavour escaped the reef’s clutches with reparable damages, the SS Yongala was not so fortunate. The passenger ship was undone by a cyclone off Australia’s eastern coast in 1911, sinking to the bottom of the Pacific about 48 nautical miles away from the Queensland city of Townsville. Today, the 350-foot-long ship lives within the perimeter of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and provides a home to hundreds of diverse fish species. 

9. THE REEF IS A VERY ROMANTIC SPOT FOR SOME ANIMALS… 

Thanks to the beauty of its Technicolor seabed or (more likely) its provisions of sanctuary and natural resources, the Great Barrier Reef doubles as a traditional breeding ground for many animal species.  Among those for which the reef is a critical mating region are four types of sea turtle—green, flatback, hawksbill, and loggerhead, with leatherback and olive ridley also calling it home. That's in addition to more than 1.5 million birds across 22 different species.

10. …AND IS EVEN MORE ROMANTIC FOR OTHERS. 

No creatures take greater advantage of the Great Barrier Reef’s amorous ambiance than the corals themselves. Once every year, the passing of a springtime full moon invites the reef’s coral population to participate in a mass spawning that has been called the greatest unified movement of reproduction on the planet. Triggered by genes devoted to detecting moonlight, corals spend the week releasing sperm and eggs to carry on their species’ near-motionless legacy. 

11. A LOT OF THE WORLD’S FISH SPECIES LIVE WITHIN THE REEF. 

The reef offers a home to an astronomical number of fish across 1,600 species. Included among the lot are species of damselfish, tuskfish, and wrasses (the most common inhabitants), as well as species of angelfish, blennies, butterfly fish, chimeras, clownfish, coral trout, cowfish, gobies, hawkfish, pipefish, potato cod, pufferfish, rays, scorpion fish, seahorses, sea perch, sharks, snapper, surgeonfish, and triggerfish. It is estimated that approximately 10 percent of the world’s fish species live within the Great Barrier Reef. 

12. THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS THE MOST DENSELY POPULATED ECOSYSTEM ON EARTH. 

Fish aren’t the only critters to occupy the reef in huge numbers. The realm features approximately 400 species of corals, 300 species of ascidians, and nearly 5,000 species of mollusks. Occupying the coastline are 22 species of seabirds, 32 species of shorebirds, and more than 150 additional bird species. Along with six species of sea turtles, the reef houses 17 species of sea snake, seven species of frogs, and the occasional saltwater crocodile. What’s more, the Great Barrier Reef boasts 30 species of Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), the subantarctic fur seal, and one of the largest populations of dugongs on Earth. 

13. YOU CAN VISIT THE REEF VIA GOOGLE STREET VIEW. 

In 2014, Google Street View, which lets users observe photographs of their (usually landlocked) destinations, updated its database with underwater images of the Great Barrier Reef. 

14. THE REEF GENERATES TONS OF TOURISM. 

The Great Barrier Reef creates about Aus$6 billion in tourist spending every year, a huge shot in the arm for the area adjacent to the reef.

15. THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS “ON THE MOVE.” 

In recent years, scientists have noticed southward relocation of many fish and corals that previously stayed within the confines of the Great Barrier Reef. As water temperatures rise throughout Oceania, reef dwellers set their courses for the increasingly hospitable New South Wales coast. Not only is this climatic change disruptive to the harmony of the reef itself, it wages warfare on the New South Wales shorelines’ native communities of algae and seaweed—species that require even cooler waters to sustain life.

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Most People Consistently Visit 25 Different Places in Their Daily Lives
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We move around a lot less during our daily lives than you might expect. Based on data from 40,000 people, a new study on human mobility finds that we tend to frequent only 25 places at any given time in our lives.

In the study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers from City, University of London, the Technical University of Denmark, and Sony Mobile Communications found that people tend to have a maximum number of 25 places that they visit regularly, and if they begin frequenting a new place, they probably stop going to another, keeping their total number of haunts constant.

The researchers used several different datasets to understand how people move through their lives, including studies with college students and university employees, data from a smartphone activity tracker called Lifelog, and a Nokia research project that tracked the behavior of a group of cell phone users living near Lake Geneva in Switzerland between 2009 and 2011.

They found that people constantly face trade-offs between the curiosity that drives us to check out new places and the laziness and comfort that keeps us going back to our regular haunts. As a result, the number of locations we tend to visit stays relatively steady. People “continually explore new places yet they are loyal to a limited number of familiar ones,” the authors write.

Though that number may sound a little low to anyone with wanderlust, it makes sense. People don’t have infinite time or resources. Even the number of friends we’re capable of keeping up with is rather limited—anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously hypothesizes that humans can only sustain around 150 friendships at a time, and only five of those friends will be truly close ones. And if that’s our upper limit for connections we can technically maintain without ever leaving our computers, it makes sense that we would be able to sustain even fewer connections to places, which by nature require some amount of travel. If you find a new restaurant and become a regular, it’s probably at the expense of another restaurant you used to visit all the time.

However, the study found that the number of places you frequent can’t necessarily be explained only by the amount of free time you have. The researchers argue that “the fixed capacity is an inherent property of human behavior.” The 25-place rule held even if they adjusted for the time people spent at each location. They also found that the more social a person was, the more places they visited.

The researchers hope to continue their work by looking at connections between mobility and Dunbar’s work on social ties, figuring out how exactly your social life plays into how you move around the world.

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Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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