Mangrove habitats provide refuge from climate change for reef-building corals

Risk analyses indicate that more than 90% of the world’s reefs will be threatened by climate change and local anthropogenic impacts by the year 2030 under “business as usual” climate scenarios. Increasing temperatures and solar radiation cause coral bleaching that has resulted in extensive coral mortality. Increasing carbon dioxide reduces seawater pH, slows coral growth, and may cause loss of reef structure. Management strategies include establishment of marine protected areas with environmental conditions that promote reef resiliency. However, few resilient reefs have been identified, and resiliency factors are poorly defined.

Here we characterize the first natural, non-reef, coral refuge from thermal stress and ocean acidification and identify resiliency factors for mangrove–coral habitats. We measured diurnal and seasonal variations in temperature, salinity, photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), and seawater chemistry; characterized substrate parameters; and examined water circulation patterns in mangrove communities where scleractinian corals are growing attached to and under mangrove prop roots in Hurricane Hole, St. John, US Virgin Islands. Additionally, we inventoried the coral species and quantified incidences of coral bleaching, mortality and recovery for two major reef-building corals, Colpophyllia natans and Diploria labyrinthiformis, growing in mangrove shaded and exposed (unshaded) areas.

At least 33 species of scleractinian corals were growing in association with mangroves. Corals were thriving in low-light (more than 70% attenuation of incident PAR) from mangrove shading and at higher temperatures than nearby reef tract corals. A higher percentage of C. natans colonies was living shaded by mangroves, and no shaded colonies bleached. Fewer D. labyrinthiformis colonies were shaded by mangroves, however more unshaded colonies bleached. A combination of substrate and habitat heterogeniety, proximity of different habitat types, hydrographic conditions, and biological influences on seawater chemistry generate chemical conditions that buffer against ocean acidification. This previously undocumented refuge for corals provides evidence for adaptation of coastal organisms and ecosystem transition due to recent climate change. Identifying and protecting other natural, non-reef coral refuges is critical for sustaining corals and other reef species into the future.

Yates K. K., Rogers C. S., Herlan J. J., Brooks G. R., Smiley N. A. & Larson R. A., 2014. Mangrove habitats provide refuge from climate change for reef-building corals. Biogeosciences Discussions 11:5053-5088. Article.

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