What Makes Corals Tolerant of Heat?

Written by on February 3, 2013 in Coral Reefs, Marine Life
Pink soft coral with reef fish in the Persian Gulf.

Pink soft coral with reef fish in the Persian Gulf. Photo credit: Linda Wade, NOAA.

With the impending threat of warming oceans, many scientists are focusing research efforts on how organisms–particularly corals–will cope.

A new study by researchers from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS) and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is looking at how some coral species survive at higher temperatures when others cannot.

Corals in the Arabian/Persian Gulf experience water temperatures of up to 36 degrees Celcius every summer. Typically, temperatures this high would kill corals, but these do just fine. In order to determine how they survive at such temperatures, the research team is selecting samples from the Gulf for further study.

“We have established successful laboratory cultures of Gulf corals,” said Dr. Jörg Wiedenmann, Head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science, who led the study. “This will greatly accelerate the progress of unraveling the mechanisms that underlie their surprising heat resistance.”

“In Gulf corals, both the coral host and the associated algal partners need to withstand the high seawater temperatures,” Dr. Wiedenmann explained.

Their findings were somewhat of a surprise. The algae in the Gulf corals belong to a group that is not known for being tolerant of heat.

“We see that the algae are indeed special but in a way that we did not expect,” said Dr. Wiedenmann. “The algae that we found in most of the corals in Abu Dhabi reefs were previously described as a ‘generalist strain’ that is usually not found in corals exposed to high levels of heat stress.”

“The system seems to be more complex than it is commonly thought but now we are in an excellent position to tackle these important questions,” he continued.

“Gulf corals are living at the limit of their tolerance,” said co-author Professor John Burt from the New York University Abu Dhabi. “We have observed an increased frequency of coral bleaching events in this area, and we need to act now to protect and understand these ecosystems that hold the answers to many important climate change related questions.”

To learn more:

Persian Gulf as seen from a satellite.

Persian Gulf as seen from a satellite. Photo credit: NASA.

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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