Coral bleaching response is unaltered following acclimatization to reefs with distinct environmental conditions


Ocean warming has caused catastrophic losses of corals on reefs worldwide and is intensifying faster than the adaptive rate of most coral populations that remain. Human interventions, such as propagation of heat-resistant corals, may help maintain reef function and delay further devastation of these valuable ecosystems as society confronts the climate crisis. However, exposing adult corals to a complex suite of new environmental conditions could lead to tradeoffs that alter their heat stress responses, and empirical data are needed to test the utility of this approach. Here, we show that corals transplanted to novel reef conditions did not exhibit changes in their heat stress response or negative fitness tradeoffs, supporting the inclusion of this approach in our management arsenal.


Urgent action is needed to prevent the demise of coral reefs as the climate crisis leads to an increasingly warmer and more acidic ocean. Propagating climate change–resistant corals to restore degraded reefs is one promising strategy; however, empirical evidence is needed to determine whether stress resistance is affected by transplantation beyond a coral’s native reef. Here, we assessed the performance of bleaching-resistant individuals of two coral species following reciprocal transplantation between reefs with distinct pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen, sedimentation, and flow dynamics to determine whether heat stress response is altered following coral exposure to novel physicochemical conditions in situ. Critically, transplantation had no influence on coral heat stress responses, indicating that this trait was relatively fixed. In contrast, growth was highly plastic, and native performance was not predictive of performance in the novel environment. Coral metabolic rates and overall fitness were higher at the reef with higher flow, salinity, sedimentation, and diel fluctuations of pH and dissolved oxygen, and did not differ between native and cross-transplanted corals, indicating acclimatization via plasticity within just 3 mo. Conversely, cross-transplants at the second reef had higher fitness than native corals, thus increasing the fitness potential of the recipient population. This experiment was conducted during a nonbleaching year, so the potential benefits to recipient population fitness are likely enhanced during bleaching years. In summary, this study demonstrates that outplanting bleaching-resistant corals is a promising tool for elevating the resistance of coral populations to ocean warming.

Barott K. L., Huffmyer A. S., Davidson J. M., Lenz E. A., Matsuda S. B., Hancock J. R., Innis T., Drury C., Putnam H. M. & Gates R. D., 2021. Coral bleaching response is unaltered following acclimatization to reefs with distinct environmental conditions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(22): e2025435118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2025435118. Article.

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