Whale shark at Ningaloo Reef. Image: Gary Cranitch

The first two Australian CReefs expeditions, to Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2008 and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia in June 2008, have significantly raised our knowledge of what lives on coral reefs.

CReefs Australia, funded by $3.4 million over four years by BHP Billiton in a deal brokered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, is addressing important questions about the diversity of coral reef associated species including how many species live on reefs, how many of these only live in this habitat, and how this diversity responds to human induced disturbance.

AIMS is leading the Australian node of the international CReefs project. The consortium includes scientists from the Australian Museum, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Museum Victoria, the Queensland Museum, the South Australian Museum and the Western Australian Museum, as well as the University of Adelaide, Murdoch University, the South Australian Herbarium and the Smithsonian Institution.

CReefs is the coral reef component of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), a global network of hundreds of researchers in more than 80 nations engaged in a 10-year scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the oceans.

Each of CReefs' three Australian locations – Lizard Island, Ningaloo Reef and Heron Island – will be visited three times over the next four years.

As well as being a concerted effort to get the reefs to yield their secrets to scientists, the CReefs expeditions are boosting the venerable science of taxonomy. Taxonomy – the science of identifying and describing species – is indispensable but has been in serious decline worldwide for years, threatening our capacity to fully understand natural systems. The CReefs project is playing a leading role in reversing this decline, and will leave a lasting legacy in Australia's museums of natural history.

Each CReef expedition uses a variety of methods to sample diverse habitats in order to collect as much biodiversity as possible. The answer to how many species live on coral reefs will not be known until the end of the project, but current estimates vary from one to nine million species. Specimens from these expeditions are being distributed to a broad network of taxonomic experts across Australia's natural history museums and herbaria, who will describe and name new species, publishing their results in publicly-available global databases and scientific publications.