Some Coral Species Can Cope with Major Environmental Events, Allowing Reefs to Bounce Back

Researchers have uncovered new genomic data about corals. The findings suggest that corals have been able to rebound from environmental events in the past. This might allow scientists to determine which corals are more likely to survive climate change. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Current Biology.

Climate change and pollution are currently causing bleaching events in coral reefs. The coral become stressed, expel the helpful algae that photosynthesize to provide food, and eventually die if conditions don’t improve. There have been similar devastating events on coral reefs in the past, including a mass extinction between 1 and 2 million years ago. Orbicella is a stony coral genus with extensive fossil records and the species are easy to study. They were the focus of this new research.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University analyzed the fossil records of Orbicella corals. The team found that although a mass extinction event wiped out most of the reef coral, some of the Orbicella survived and began to spread. They were able to spread into parts of the reef that were previously home to other coral species. Eventually, the entire reef began to bounce back and other species popped up. The team cautions that this type of rebound would depend on the environment and other factors; the area would still need to be able to support coral life.

The findings show that coral reefs are able to recover from catastrophic events such as the mass bleaching currently affecting modern coral species. Mass bleaching is caused by a combination of climate change and pollution. Although these events kill most coral, the affected reef could slowly recover in the future. The team’s study provides new insights into how coral reefs cope with unexpected ecological events. The results will also help conservationists identify which coral species are the most vulnerable to climate change.

REFERENCE

Prada et al. Empty Niches after Extinctions Increase Population Sizes of Modern Corals. Current Biology (2016).

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