Baby coral research gives glimmer of hope reefs could adapt to global warming

Photo credits: Alamy

Photo credits: Alamy

A reef-building coral that can survive a more acidic ocean is giving scientists hope that the world’s reefs stand a chance against climate change.

An international team of researchers has been using baby corals from the Great Barrier Reef to study the impacts of ocean acidification.

A large portion of the world’s carbon emissions and greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the ocean, leading to higher acidity levels, which are harmful to coral reefs and small marine animals.

A James Cook University ecologist, Dr Aurelie Moya, has been leading research into how baby corals’ genes react to a more acidic ocean and the findings have been promising. Moya said the formation of baby corals had been disrupted when exposed to high carbon dioxide levels over three days. But after nine days the corals had readjusted.

“Longer exposure seems to be less detrimental to coral health than we had assumed based on shorter-term studies,” Moya said. “These findings suggest that baby corals have the capacity to acclimate to elevated carbon dioxide.”

The research team examined tens of thousands of coral genes and was able to identify those responsible for enabling acclimation to high carbon dioxide.

The study’s co-author, Professor David Miller, said the findings were particularly significant as they centred on staghorn coral. “Staghorn corals are the key reef-building corals throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans,” he said. “These are traditionally considered to have poor stress tolerance.”

He said the study provided a glimmer of hope that coral reefs could withstand the effects of ocean acidification.

But Moya and Miller sounded a warning on the combined effect of increased carbon dioxide and warming oceans.

“This study focused on one single stressor – ocean acidification – but we must keep in mind that the combination of several stressors, such as ocean acidification and warming, could lead to larger impacts on baby corals,” Moya said.

Australian Associated Press, The Guardian, 3 December 2014. Article.

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