Synchronised multispecies mass spawning events are striking features of reproduction in corals. This synchronous gamete release of thousands of animals over vast stretches of reef is thought to be cued by rhythms of the Moon. However, the mechanisms are not fully understood. We propose an explanation that may contribute to understanding this mechanism, that spawning is triggered by the coincidence of two factors, each in different lunar rhythms. We investigate this proposal in case studies using seven years of coral spawning data from two locations: Kochi, Japan and Lizard Island, Australia. Our calculations show that a feature in a lunar synodic rhythm (the third quarter) will synchronise with a feature in a lunar non-synodic rhythm (the zero declination) usually once, although occasionally twice in a year. Supported by data on the date of spawning from the two locations, we suggest that this coincidence of lunar factors exerts an important influence on the timing of annual mass spawning in corals. This coincidence may be associated with low atmospheric pressure. Spawning at the time of the third lunar quarter may favour fertilisation success due to the reduced currents during neap tides associated with the lower gravitational pressure of the lunar quarters.
The Coral Triangle (CT) region of the Indo-Pacific realm harbors an extraordinary number of species, with richness decreasing away from this biodiversity hotspot. Despite multiple competing hypotheses, the dynamics underlying this regional diversity pattern remain poorly understood. Here, we use a time-calibrated evolutionary tree of living reef coral species, their current geographic ranges, and model-based estimates of regional rates of speciation, extinction, and geographic range shifts to show that origination rates within the CT are lower than in surrounding regions, a result inconsistent with the long-standing center of origin hypothesis. Furthermore, endemism of coral species in the CT is low, and the CT endemics are older than relatives found outside this region. Overall, our model results suggest that the high diversity of reef corals in the CT is largely due to range expansions into this region of species that evolved elsewhere. These findings strongly support the notion that geographic range shifts play a critical role in generating species diversity gradients. They also show that preserving the processes that gave rise to the striking diversity of corals in the CT requires protecting not just reefs within the hotspot, but also those in the surrounding areas.
Impacts of global climate change on coral reefs are being amplified by pulse heat stress events, including El Niño, the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Despite reports of extensive coral bleaching and up to 97% coral mortality induced by El Niño events, a quantitative synthesis of the nature, intensity, and drivers of El Niño and La Niña impacts on corals is lacking. Herein, we first present a global meta-analysis of studies quantifying the effects of El Niño/La Niña-warming on corals, surveying studies from both the primary literature and International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) Proceedings. Overall, the strongest signal for El Niño/La Niña-associated coral bleaching was long-term mean temperature; bleaching decreased with decreasing long-term mean temperature (n = 20 studies). Additionally, coral cover losses during El Niño/La Niña were shaped by localized maximum heat stress and long-term mean temperature (n = 28 studies). Second, we present a method for quantifying coral heat stress which, for any coral reef location in the world, allows extraction of remotely-sensed degree heating weeks (DHW) for any date (since 1982), quantification of the maximum DHW, and the time lag since the maximum DHW. Using this method, we show that the 2015/16 El Niño event instigated unprecedented global coral heat stress across the world's oceans. With El Niño events expected to increase in frequency and severity this century, it is imperative that we gain a clear understanding of how these thermal stress anomalies impact different coral species and coral reef regions. We therefore finish with recommendations for future coral bleaching studies that will foster improved syntheses, as well as predictive and adaptive capacity to extreme warming events.
To describe, model and assess the relative importance of environmental and climatic factors likely influencing the regional distribution of coral cover and assemblages with contrasting life histories and susceptibilities to bleaching.
We compiled the first comprehensive empirical dataset for coral communities in the south-eastern Indian Ocean (SEIO), incorporating information from 392 sites along the western coast of Australia and offshore atolls/islands across ~19° of latitude.
We assessed hard coral cover and community composition to genus using point-intercept transects or point-count analysis of digital images taken along transects. We explored spatial variation in environmental conditions and in composition of corals with contrasting life histories. After de-trending the temporal patterns, we assessed the relative importance of environmental metrics to coral cover, life histories and bleaching susceptibility using a full subsets model-selection approach with generalized additive mixed models, accounting for both temporal and among site variation.
The distribution of temperature, light, the frequency of temperature anomalies and tropical cyclones appear to be drivers of coral community structure. Functional diversity of low- to mid-latitude coral communities may convey some resilience to thermal stress, while higher latitude communities dominated by Competitive and Bleaching-Susceptible taxa may lack this functional resilience. These patterns likely reflect varying historical exposure to cyclones and temperature anomalies.
As evident in recent years, changing background conditions and regimes of disturbance in coming decades will shift the distribution, functional diversity and resilience of coral reefs throughout the SEIO. The rate and magnitude of environmental change will ultimately determine the future of the tropical reefs and whether the higher latitude reefs provide some refuge from climate change. Our study highlights the need to quantify the distributional properties of key environmental metrics to better understand and predict reef condition through coming decades.
Global climate change and localized anthropogenic stressors are driving rapid declines in coral reef health. In vitro experiments have been fundamental in providing insight into how reef organisms will potentially respond to future climates. However, such experiments are inevitably limited in their ability to reproduce the complex interactions that govern reef systems. Studies examining coral communities that already persist under naturally-occurring extreme and marginal physicochemical conditions have therefore become increasingly popular to advance ecosystem scale predictions of future reef form and function, although no single site provides a perfect analog to future reefs. Here we review the current state of knowledge that exists on the distribution of corals in marginal and extreme environments, and geographic sites at the latitudinal extremes of reef growth, as well as a variety of shallow reef systems and reef-neighboring environments (including upwelling and CO2 vent sites). We also conduct a synthesis of the abiotic data that have been collected at these systems, to provide the first collective assessment on the range of extreme conditions under which corals currently persist. We use the review and data synthesis to increase our understanding of the biological and ecological mechanisms that facilitate survival and success under sub-optimal physicochemical conditions. This comprehensive assessment can begin to: (i) highlight the extent of extreme abiotic scenarios under which corals can persist, (ii) explore whether there are commonalities in coral taxa able to persist in such extremes, (iii) provide evidence for key mechanisms required to support survival and/or persistence under sub-optimal environmental conditions, and (iv) evaluate the potential of current sub-optimal coral environments to act as potential refugia under changing environmental conditions. Such a collective approach is critical to better understand the future survival of corals in our changing environment. We finally outline priority areas for future research on extreme and marginal coral environments, and discuss the additional management options they may provide for corals through refuge or by providing genetic stocks of stress tolerant corals to support proactive management strategies.
Climatically extreme weather events often drive long-term ecological responses of ecosystems. By disrupting the important symbiosis with zooxanthellae, Marine Cold Spells (MCS) can cause bleaching and mortality in tropical and subtropical scleractinian corals. Here we report on the effects of a severe MCS on high latitude corals, where we expected to find bleaching and mortality. The MCS took place off the coast of Perth (32°S), Western Australia in 2016. Bleaching was assessed before (2014) and after (2017) the MCS from surveys of permanent plots, and with timed bleaching searches. Temperature data was recorded with in situ loggers. During the MCS temperatures dipped to the coldest recorded in ten years (15.3°C) and periods of <17°C lasted for up to 19 days. Only 4.3% of the surveyed coral colonies showed signs of bleaching. Bleaching was observed in 8 species where those most affected were Plesiastrea versipora and Montipora mollis. These findings suggest that high latitude corals in this area are tolerant of cold stress and are not persisting near a lethal temperature minimum. It has not been established whether other environmental conditions are limiting these species, and if so, what the implications are for coral performance on these reefs in a warmer future.
Benthic cyanobacteria have commonly been a small but integral component of coral reef ecosystems, fulfilling the critical function of introducing bioavailable nitrogen to an inherently oligotrophic environment. Though surveys may have previously neglected benthic cyanobacteria, or grouped them with more conspicuous benthic groups, emerging evidence strongly indicates that they are becoming increasingly prevalent on reefs worldwide. Some species can form mats comprised by a diverse microbial consortium which allows them to exist across a wide range of environmental conditions. This review evaluates the putative driving factors of increasing benthic cyanobacterial mats, including climate change, declining coastal water quality, iron input, and overexploitation of key consumer and ecosystem engineer species. Ongoing global environmental change can increase growth rates and toxin production of physiologically plastic benthic cyanobacterial mats, placing them at a considerable competitive advantage against reef-building corals. Once established, strong ecological feedbacks [e.g., inhibition of coral recruitment, release of dissolved organic carbon (DOC)] reinforce reef degradation. The review also highlights previously overlooked implications of mat proliferation, which can extend beyond reef health and affect human health and welfare. Though identifying (opportunistic) consumers of mats remains a priority, their perceived low palatability implies that herbivore management alone may be insufficient to control their proliferation and must be accompanied by local measures to improve water quality and watershed management.
Coastal communities in tropical environments are at increasing risk from both environmental degradation and climate change and require urgent local adaptation action. Evidences show coral reefs play a critical role in wave attenuation but relatively little direct connection has been drawn between these effects and impacts on shorelines. Reefs are rarely assessed for their coastal protection service and thus not managed for their infrastructure benefits, while widespread damage and degradation continues. This paper presents a systematic approach to assess the protective role of coral reefs and to examine solutions based on the reef's influence on wave propagation patterns. Portions of the shoreline of Grenville Bay, Grenada, have seen acute shoreline erosion and coastal flooding. This paper (i) analyzes the historical changes in the shoreline and the local marine, (ii) assess the role of coral reefs in shoreline positioning through a shoreline equilibrium model first applied to coral reef environments, and (iii) design and begin implementation of a reef-based solution to reduce erosion and flooding. Coastline changes in the bay over the past 6 decades are analyzed from bathymetry and benthic surveys, historical imagery, historical wave and sea level data and modeling of wave dynamics. The analysis shows that, at present, the healthy and well-developed coral reefs system in the southern bay keeps the shoreline in equilibrium and stable, whereas reef degradation in the northern bay is linked with severe coastal erosion. A comparison of wave energy modeling for past bathymetry indicates that degradation of the coral reefs better explains erosion than changes in climate and historical sea level rise. Using this knowledge on how reefs affect the hydrodynamics, a reef restoration solution is designed and studied to ameliorate the coastal erosion and flooding. A characteristic design provides a modular design that can meet specific engineering, ecological and implementation criteria. Four pilot units were implemented in 2015 and are currently being field-tested. This paper presents one of the few existing examples available to date of a reef restoration project designed and engineered to deliver risk reduction benefits. The case study shows how engineering and ecology can work together in community-based adaptation. Our findings are particularly important for Small Island States on the front lines of climate change, who have the most to gain from protecting and managing coral reefs as coastal infrastructure.
Ocean acidification (OA), the gradual decline in ocean pH and [ ] caused by rising levels of atmospheric CO2, poses a significant threat to coral reef ecosystems, depressing rates of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) production, and enhancing rates of bioerosion and dissolution. As ocean pH and [ ] decline globally, there is increasing emphasis on managing local stressors that can exacerbate the vulnerability of coral reefs to the effects of OA. We show that sustained, nutrient rich, lower pH submarine groundwater discharging onto nearshore coral reefs off west Maui lowers the pH of seawater and exposes corals to nitrate concentrations 50 times higher than ambient. Rates of coral calcification are substantially decreased, and rates of bioerosion are orders of magnitude higher than those observed in coral cores collected in the Pacific under equivalent low pH conditions but living in oligotrophic waters. Heavier coral nitrogen isotope (δ15N) values pinpoint not only site-specific eutrophication, but also a sewage nitrogen source enriched in 15N. Our results show that eutrophication of reef seawater by land-based sources of pollution can magnify the effects of OA through nutrient driven-bioerosion. These conditions could contribute to the collapse of coastal coral reef ecosystems sooner than current projections predict based only on ocean acidification.
Plain Language Summary
We show that sustained, nutrient rich, lower pH submarine groundwater discharging onto nearshore coral reefs off west Maui lowers the pH of seawater and exposes corals to nitrate concentrations 50 times higher than ambient. Rates of coral calcification are substantially decreased, and rates of bioerosion are orders of magnitude higher than those observed in coral cores collected in the Pacific. With many of Maui's coral reefs in significant decline reducing any stressors at a local scale is important to sustaining future coral reef ecosystems and planning for resiliency.
Coastal oceans are increasingly eutrophic, warm and acidic through the addition of anthropogenic nitrogen and carbon, respectively. Among the most sensitive taxa to these changes are scleractinian corals, which engineer the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. Corals’ sensitivity is a consequence of their evolutionary investment in symbiosis with the dinoflagellate alga, Symbiodinium. Together, the coral holobiont has dominated oligotrophic tropical marine habitats. However, warming destabilizes this association and reduces coral fitness. It has been theorized that, when reefs become warm and eutrophic, mutualistic Symbiodinium sequester more resources for their own growth, thus parasitizing their hosts of nutrition. Here, we tested the hypothesis that sub-bleaching temperature and excess nitrogen promotes symbiont parasitism by measuring respiration (costs) and the assimilation and translocation of both carbon (energy) and nitrogen (growth; both benefits) within Orbicella faveolata hosting one of two Symbiodinium phylotypes using a dual stable isotope tracer incubation at ambient (26 °C) and sub-bleaching (31 °C) temperatures under elevated nitrate. Warming to 31 °C reduced holobiont net primary productivity (NPP) by 60% due to increased respiration which decreased host %carbon by 15% with no apparent cost to the symbiont. Concurrently, Symbiodinium carbon and nitrogen assimilation increased by 14 and 32%, respectively while increasing their mitotic index by 15%, whereas hosts did not gain a proportional increase in translocated photosynthates. We conclude that the disparity in benefits and costs to both partners is evidence of symbiont parasitism in the coral symbiosis and has major implications for the resilience of coral reefs under threat of global change.