Modeling environmentally-mediated variation in reef coral physiology
Increases in seawater temperature associated with global climate change are causing the mutualistic relationship between reef-building corals and the symbiotic dinoflagellates (genus Symbiodinium) that reside within their cells to break down. There is consequently an urgent need to develop tools for modeling coral biology in response to environmental shifts, an enterprise that is complicated by the fact that no pristine reefs remain on Earth. This work sought to 1) uncover the environmental factors that contribute most to observed spatio-temporal variation in coral physiology and 2) devise means of detecting anomalous behavior in field corals by analyzing a dataset from the Austral (French Polynesia) and Cook Islands of the South Pacific with a multivariate statistical approach. Upon employing this multi-tiered analytical platform, host genotype was found to be the most significant driver of variation in physiology of the pocilloporid coral colonies sampled across the two archipelagos. Furthermore, those colonies demonstrating the most extensive variation across the seven response variables assessed tended to deviate most significantly from the global mean response calculated across all samples, suggesting that high within-sample physiological variability may be one means of delineating aberrant coral behavior in the absence of data from pristine control reefs.