Will some coral ‘win’ in a warmer ocean?

"While it is unlikely future tropical reefs will provide the same ecological goods and services as the coral reefs of the past, our study provides optimism that some reef corals will persist in a warmer and more acidic future," says Peter Edmunds. (Credit: iStockphoto)

While warmer ocean temperatures pose a threat to many coral species, scientists say it’s not all bad news for the world’s coral reefs.

A group of researchers took a closer look at future changes in coral reefs as ocean temperatures continue to rise. According to their analysis, there will be winners and losers.

A subset of the present coral fauna will likely populate the world’s oceans as water temperatures continue to rise, they say.

To simulate future outcomes, the researchers analyzed contemporary and fossil coral reef ecosystem data sets from two Caribbean locations in the US Virgin Islands and Belize, and from five Indo-Pacific locations in Moorea, Taiwan, Hawaii, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and Kenya.

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“Although many corals are becoming less abundant, there remain a number of species that are holding their own or increasing in abundance and these corals will populate tropical reefs over the next few centuries,” says principal investigator and lead author Peter Edmunds, a biology professor at California State University, Northridge.

The study uses current case studies to describe the events taking place on extant reefs; it also uses fossil records to explain the temporal novelty of the changes affecting the community ecology on these reefs.

The analysis shows that the winning subset coral species is fast-growing, phenotypically smaller and wider, and more stress-resistant. It also readily produces offspring. While this subset of species still supports diversity, a lot is still unknown about its functionality.

“This work is important as it reveals a range of nuanced outcomes for tropical reef corals other than near-complete loss of live coral cover in the face of the current onslaught of environmental assaults,” Edmunds says.

“While it is unlikely future tropical reefs will provide the same ecological goods and services as the coral reefs of the past, our study provides optimism that some reef corals will persist in a warmer and more acidic future.”

The study, published in PLOS ONE, was based at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

Source: UC Santa Barbara