Physiological acclimatization in Hawaiian corals following a 22-month shift in baseline seawater temperature and pH

Climate change poses a major threat to coral reefs. We conducted an outdoor 22-month experiment to investigate if coral could not just survive, but also physiologically cope, with chronic ocean warming and acidification conditions expected later this century under the Paris Climate Agreement. We recorded survivorship and measured eleven phenotypic traits to evaluate the holobiont responses of Hawaiian coral: color, Symbiodiniaceae density, calcification, photosynthesis, respiration, total organic carbon flux, carbon budget, biomass, lipids, protein, and maximum Artemia capture rate. Survivorship was lowest in Montipora capitata and only some survivors were able to meet metabolic demand and physiologically cope with future ocean conditions. Most M. capitata survivors bleached through loss of chlorophyll pigments and simultaneously experienced increased respiration rates and negative carbon budgets due to a 236% increase in total organic carbon losses under combined future ocean conditions. Porites compressa and Porites lobata had the highest survivorship and coped well under future ocean conditions with positive calcification and increased biomass, maintenance of lipids, and the capacity to exceed their metabolic demand through photosynthesis and heterotrophy. Thus, our findings show that significant biological diversity within resilient corals like Porites, and some genotypes of sensitive species, will persist this century provided atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are controlled. Since Porites corals are ubiquitous throughout the world’s oceans and often major reef builders, the persistence of this resilient genus provides hope for future reef ecosystem function globally.

McLachlan R. H., Price J. T., Muñoz-Garcia A., Weisleder N. L., Levas S. J., Jury C. P., Toonen R. J. & Grottoli A. G., 2022. Physiological acclimatization in Hawaiian corals following a 22-month shift in baseline seawater temperature and pH. Scientific Reports 12: 3712. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-06896-z. Article.

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