Reef calcifiers are adapted to episodic heat stress but vulnerable to sustained warming
Shallow marine ecosystems naturally experience fluctuating physicochemical conditions across spatial and temporal scales. Widespread coral-bleaching events, induced by prolonged heat stress, highlight the importance of how the duration and frequency of thermal stress influence the adaptive physiology of photosymbiotic calcifiers. Large benthic foraminifera harboring algal endosymbionts are major tropical carbonate producers and bioindicators of ecosystem health. Like corals, they are sensitive to thermal stress and bleach at temperatures temporarily occurring in their natural habitat and projected to happen more frequently. However, their thermal tolerance has been studied so far only by chronic exposure, so how they respond under more realistic episodic heat-event scenarios remains unknown. Here, we determined the physiological responses of Amphistegina gibbosa, an abundant western Atlantic foraminifera, to four different treatments––control, single, episodic, and chronic exposure to the same thermal stress (32°C)––in controlled laboratory cultures. Exposure to chronic thermal stress reduced motility and growth, while antioxidant capacity was elevated, and photosymbiont variables (coloration, oxygen-production rates, chlorophyll a concentration) indicated extensive bleaching. In contrast, single- and episodic-stress treatments were associated with higher motility and growth, while photosymbiont variables remained stable. The effects of single and episodic heat events were similar, except for the presumable occurrence of reproduction, which seemed to be suppressed by both episodic and chronic stress. The otherwise different responses between treatments with thermal fluctuations and chronic stress indicate adaptation to thermal peaks, but not to chronic exposure expected to ensue when baseline temperatures are elevated by climate change. This firstly implies that marine habitats with a history of fluctuating thermal stress potentially support resilient physiological mechanisms among photosymbiotic organisms. Secondly, there seem to be temporal constraints related to heat events among coral reef environments and reinforces the importance of temporal fluctuations in stress exposure in global-change studies and projections.