Climate change is bad news for coral reefs around the world, with high ocean temperatures that cause widespread bleaching events that weaken and kill corals. However, a new research from the University of Texas in Austin found that corals with solitary rays, preferring to live only in place of reef communities, could improve their relatives.
The discoveries, which could give clues to where the modern reef conservation centers should be focused, are based on a survey on coral species that survived during a period of warming in the Earth's past that resembles today's climate change. And while research suggests that corals can better cope with climate change than expected, lifestyles isolated from survivors could mean that the coral ecosystems of the future may be bleak.
"Although corals can survive, if they are not building reefs, this will cause other problems within the ecosystem," said Anna Weiss, a Ph.D. doctorate. candidate at UT Jackson School of Geosciences who led the research. "Reefs support very large and diverse communities."
The environment is not the only one facing a bleak future. Coral species with the best survival probabilities are monotonous compared to color reef corals.
The research was published in the magazine Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology the 21 of January. Weiss was co-author of the work with her advisor Rowan Martindale, assistant professor at the Jackson School.
The study examined the coral species that lived about 56 million years ago during the late Paleocene transition to the Primitive Eocene, a time interval that lasted about 200,000 years and which included atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature peaks. Peaks have created global temperatures that are about 14 degrees Celsius (8 degrees Celsius) warmer than they are today and make the oceans more acidic. The researchers tracked the coral during this period to obtain information on how coral can live today in the face of contemporary climate change.
They have done the work using an international fossil database. The database includes information on how hundreds of coral species lived and their physical characteristics, such as how to eat a species, the type of environment in which they lived, their reproduction, and how to form colonies. Research has revealed that globally solitary coral species have increased diversity during the warm period. They also discovered that certain traits that probably helped corals face the effects of climate change were associated with coral survival.
One of the traits is the obtaining of foods independently instead of obtaining nutrients from algae sensitive to heat that live in certain coral tissues but which they leave, causing coral bleaching when the water is heated too much. Another stroke is prefer to live in rocky bottom bottoms where the water is cooler than the carbonate rock in warmer and lower areas. The researchers said that understanding the traits related to coral survival in the past could be a useful lens to predict how corals today could respond to continuous warming and could concentrate conservation efforts.
"Conservationists want to know what features can help different species survive global change. If we can find patterns for survival, we could help our reefs improve today and in the coming years," said Martindale.
Carl Simpson, a paleobologist and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who did not participate in the research, said it was interesting to see how different coral features were related with different survival results.
"It may be a bit of a subtle thing, because I would think that everyone is susceptible to environmental change and warming and acidification," he said. "But it turns out that there is enough variety in the way they live that really respond differently."
Discovering the corals worldwide has been able to adapt to climate change in the past suggesting that they may be able to do it again in the future. However, Weiss notes that perspective is a "best scenario". Warming during the Paleocene has passed over the thousands of years, while the rate of warming occurs today through decades to centuries. It is not known whether corals will face the rapid rate of change that is happening in the present. Weiss said that there is more research that explores how specific coral communities – rather than corals as a whole – responded to warming in the past could help better understand scientists about how corals in different environments in the world could respond today to climate change .
The research was supported by the Jackson School of Geosciences.
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