Impact of global warming and rising CO2 levels on coral reef fishes: what hope for the future?

Average sea-surface temperature and the amount of CO2 dissolved in the ocean are rising as a result of increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2. Many coral reef fishes appear to be living close to their thermal optimum, and for some of them, even relatively moderate increases in temperature (2–4°C) lead to significant reductions in aerobic scope. Reduced aerobic capacity could affect population sustainability because less energy can be devoted to feeding and reproduction. Coral reef fishes seem to have limited capacity to acclimate to elevated temperature as adults, but recent research shows that developmental and transgenerational plasticity occur, which might enable some species to adjust to rising ocean temperatures. Predicted increases in PCO2, and associated ocean acidification, can also influence the aerobic scope of coral reef fishes, although there is considerable interspecific variation, with some species exhibiting a decline and others an increase in aerobic scope at near-future CO2 levels. As with thermal effects, there are transgenerational changes in response to elevated CO2 that could mitigate impacts of high CO2 on the growth and survival of reef fishes. An unexpected discovery is that elevated CO2 has a dramatic effect on a wide range of behaviours and sensory responses of reef fishes, with consequences for the timing of settlement, habitat selection, predator avoidance and individual fitness. The underlying physiological mechanism appears to be the interference of acid–base regulatory processes with brain neurotransmitter function. Differences in the sensitivity of species and populations to global warming and rising CO2 have been identified that will lead to changes in fish community structure as the oceans warm and becomes more acidic; however, the prospect for acclimation and adaptation of populations to these threats also needs to be considered. Ultimately, it will be the capacity for species to adjust to environmental change over coming decades that will determine the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems.

Munday P. L., McCormick M. I. & Nilsson G. E., 2012. Impact of global warming and rising CO2 levels on coral reef fishes: what hope for the future? Journal of Experimental Biology 215, 3865-3873. Article (subscription required).

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