Paradise lost: end‐of‐century warming and acidification under business‐as‐usual emissions have severe consequences for symbiotic corals

Despite recent efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, current global emission trajectories are still following the business‐as‐usual RCP8.5 emission pathway. The resulting ocean warming and acidification have transformative impacts on coral reef ecosystems, detrimentally affecting coral physiology and health, and these impacts are predicted to worsen in the near future. In this study, we kept fragments of the symbiotic corals Acropora intermedia (thermally sensitive) and Porites lobata (thermally tolerant) for 7 weeks under an orthogonal design of predicted end‐of‐century RCP8.5 conditions for temperature and pCO2 (3.5 °C and 570 ppm above present‐day respectively) to unravel how temperature and acidification, individually or interactively, influence metabolic and physiological performance. Our results pinpoint thermal stress as the dominant driver of deteriorating health in both species because of its propensity to destabilize coral‐dinoflagellate symbiosis (bleaching). Acidification had no influence on metabolism but had a significant negative effect on skeleton growth, particularly when photosynthesis was absent such as in bleached corals or under dark conditions. Total loss of photosynthesis after bleaching caused an exhaustion of protein and lipid stores and collapse of calcification that ultimately led to A. intermedia mortality. Despite complete loss of symbionts from its tissue, P. lobata maintained small amounts of photosynthesis and experienced a weaker decline in lipid and protein reserves that presumably contributed to higher survival of this species. Our results indicate that ocean warming and acidification under business‐as‐usual CO2 emission scenarios will likely extirpate thermally‐sensitive coral species before the end of the century, while slowing the recovery of more thermally‐tolerant species from increasingly severe mass coral bleaching and mortality. This could ultimately lead to the gradual disappearance of tropical coral reefs globally, and a shift on surviving reefs to only the most resilient coral species.

van der Zande R. M., Achlatis M., Bender‐Champ D., Kubicek A., Dove S. & Hoegh‐Guldberg O., in press. Paradise lost: end‐of‐century warming and acidification under business‐as‐usual emissions have severe consequences for symbiotic corals. Global Change Biology. Article (subscription required).

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