Paleobiological traits that determined Scleractinian coral survival and proliferation during the late Paleocene and early Eocene hyperthermals

Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to environmental disturbances, such as rapid shifts in temperature or carbonate saturation. Work on modern reefs has suggested that some corals will fare better than others in times of stress and that their life history traits might correlate with species survival. These same traits can be applied to fossil taxa to assess whether life history traits correspond with coral survival through past intervals of stress similar to future climate predictions. This study aims to identify whether ecological selection (based on physiology, behavior, habitat, etc.) plays a role in the long‐term survival of corals during the late Paleocene and early Eocene. The late Paleocene‐early Eocene interval is associated with multiple hyperthermal events that correspond to rises in atmospheric pCO2 and sea surface temperature, ocean acidification, and increases in weathering and turbidity. Coral reefs are rare during the late Paleocene and early Eocene, but despite the lack of reef habitat, corals do not experience an extinction at the generic level and there is little extinction at the species level. In fact, generic and species richness increases throughout the late Paleocene and early Eocene. We show that corals with certain traits (coloniality, carnivorous, or suspension feeding diet, hermaphroditic brooding reproduction, living in clastic settings) are more likely to survive climate change in the early Eocene. These findings have important implications for modern coral ecology and allow us to make more nuanced predictions about which taxa will have higher extinction risk in present‐day climate change.

Weiss A. M. & Martindale R. C., 2019. Paleobiological traits that determined Scleractinian coral survival and proliferation during the late Paleocene and early Eocene hyperthermals. Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology 34 (2): 252-274. Article (subscription required).

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