Spatial community shift from hard to soft corals in acidified water

Anthropogenic increases in the partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2) cause ocean acidification, declining calcium carbonate saturation states, reduced coral reef calcification and changes in the compositions of marine communities1. Most projected community changes due to ocean acidification describe transitions from hard coral to non-calcifying macroalgal communities2; other organisms have received less attention, despite the biotic diversity of coral reef communities. We show that the spatial distributions of both hard and soft coral communities in volcanically acidified, semi-enclosed waters off Iwotorishima Island, Japan, are related to pCO2 levels. Hard corals are restricted to non-acidified low- pCO2 (225 μatm) zones, dense populations of the soft coral Sarcophyton elegans dominate medium- pCO2 (831 μatm) zones, and both hard and soft corals are absent from the highest- pCO2 (1,465 μatm) zone. In CO2-enriched culture experiments, high- pCO2 conditions benefited Sarcophyton elegans by enhancing photosynthesis rates and did not affect light calcification, but dark decalcification (negative net calcification) increased with increasing pCO2. These results suggest that reef communities may shift from reef-building hard corals to non-reef-building soft corals under pCO2 levels (550–970 μatm) predicted by the end of this century3, and that higher pCO2 levels would challenge the survival of some reef organisms.

Inoue S., Kayanne H., Yamamoto S. & Kurihara H., in press. Spatial community shift from hard to soft corals in acidified water. Nature Climate Change. Article (subscription required).

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