Sunscreen Chemicals, Flesh-eating Quolls and Whale Shark Feasts: Journal science snippets

May 25th, 2022

We're serving up science from the pages of Australian Journal of Chemistry, Australian Mammalogy and Pacific Conservation Biology.

A collage of three photos: a whale shark's spotted back as it swims near the surface, a cute quoll, a swimmer snorkelling over a reef


Did you know we publish around 1,800 research articles in our journals every year? With so many papers it would be impossible to highlight all the wonderful research we publish, so here we’ve picked three very different stories we thought you might enjoy.

Chemicals not the culprit for corals

Sunscreen has long been considered by many as one of the causes of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, but the author of a review published in Australian Journal of Chemistry has concluded that this is inaccurate.

University of Sydney’s Nial Wheate has found that while chemicals in sunscreen pose a risk to corals under laboratory conditions, they are only found at very low levels in real world environments.

“The key phrase above is ‘under laboratory conditions’,” Nial explains in The Conversation. “Laboratory-only studies are not giving us a reliable indication of what happens to these chemicals in real world conditions.”

He writes that coral bleaching is “more likely to be due to the marine heatwaves and increased water temperatures that have come with climate change, as well as land-based run-off.”

“Sunscreen should remain a key part of our sun protection strategy, as a way to protect skin from UV damage, prevention of skin cancers, and slow the visible signs of ageing. Our coral reefs face much bigger issues than sunscreen.”

A snorkeler swimming over a reef.

The concentrations of sunscreen chemicals are too low to cause the bleaching, according to Nial Wheate. (Photo: Ibrahim Razzan, Unsplash)

Human remains make quoll-ity snacks

Australian quolls are known to scavenge, but until now there has been little to indicate that these adorable marsupials might like to nibble on human corpses.

David Peacock from the University of Adelaide found newspaper accounts between 1831 and 1916 where the scavenging of a corpse was attributed partly or entirely to quolls.

“During my research over the last 12 years I found over 100 accounts of quolls eating human corpses — including infants — detailed in the local newspapers… the details were quite gory,” he said in an article in ABC News. “It will be difficult to look at quolls the same way again.”

David identified a few notable post-mortem quoll victims, including Sergeant Michael Kennedy, shot by the Ned Kelly Gang in Victoria’s Wombat Ranges. As David explains in The Conversation, the man who later stumbled across his body said “one ear was gone. I imagined it had been gnawed away by native cats (quolls). The body was very much decomposed.”

The grisly research was published in Australian Mammalogy, the journal of the Australian Mammal Society.

An adorable fluffy quoll. Its coat is spotty, its nose is pink.

The adorable face of a cadaver cruncher. (Photo: pen_ash, Pixabay)

Whale sharks having a ball in the Ningaloo

Researchers captured rare in-water evidence of whale sharks feeding on baitballs (when small fish swarm in tightly packed spheres) in the presence of other predators, and published their findings in Pacific Conservation Biology.

“At Ningaloo, Western Australia, eye-witnesses have reported whale sharks feeding on baitballs for over 20 years, however, there is a lack of in-water photographic evidence to support these reports,” explain the researchers in their paper. “This limits our understanding of both the importance of baitballs to whale shark diets and the feeding behaviours employed by whale sharks to capitalise on this food source in this region.

“Over 20,000 tourists participate in whale shark tours at Ningaloo every year, and this large amount of time spent in the field increases the likelihood of recording cryptic behaviours… Our results highlight the value of citizen science to collect data that advances our understanding of the ecology of cryptic and elusive species.”

The below footage, taken by professional photographer Tom Cannon, shows at least three whale sharks gliding through a baitball.

“I’ve watched the footage hundreds of times, and it still blows my mind,” says Emily Lester, a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and lead author of the paper, in an article in National Geographic exploring this research further.

Feeling stressed? Watching this video might help. (Video: Tom Cannon, Ocean Collective Media)

Enjoyed these science stories? Visit our website to discover more brilliant research published in our journals.