Colonies of Acropora formosa with greater survival potential have reduced calcification rates

Coral reefs are facing increasingly devastating impacts from ocean warming and acidification due to anthropogenic climate change. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, potential solutions have focused either on reducing light stress during heating, or on the potential for identifying or engineering “super corals”. A large subset of these studies, however, have tended to focus primarily on the bleaching response of corals, and assume erroneously that corals that bleach earlier in a thermal event die first. Here, we explore how survival, observable bleaching, coral skeletal growth (as branch extension and densification), and coral tissue growth (protein and lipid concentrations) varies for conspecifics collected from distinctive reef zones at Heron Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef. A reciprocal transplantation experiment was undertaken using the dominant reef building coral (Acropora formosa) between the highly variable reef flat and the less variable reef slope environments. Coral colonies originating from the reef flat had higher rates of survival and amassed greater protein densities but calcified at reduced rates compared to conspecifics originating from the reef slope. The energetics of both populations however potentially benefited from greater light intensity present in the shallows. Reef flat origin corals moved to the lower light intensity of the reef slope reduced protein density and calcification rates. For Aformosa, genetic differences, or long-term entrainment to a highly variable environment, appeared to promote coral survival at the expense of calcification. The response decouples coral survival from carbonate coral reef resilience, a response that was further exacerbated by reductions in irradiance. As we begin to discuss interventions necessitated by the CO2 that has already been released into the atmosphere, we need to prioritise our focus on the properties that maintain valuable carbonate ecosystems. Rapid and dense calcification by corals such as branching Acropora is essential to the ability of carbonate coral reefs to rebound following disturbance events and maintain 3D structure but may be the first property that is sacrificed to enable coral genet survival under stress.

Clark V., Mello-Athayde M. A. & Dove S., 2022. Colonies of Acropora formosa with greater survival potential have reduced calcification rates. PLoS ONE 17(6): e0269526. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0269526. Article.

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