Responses of corals and coral reef ecosystems to ocean acidification under variable temperature and light

Coral reefs are under increasing pressure from ocean acidification. However, much of our understanding is based on single-species aquarium experiments made in isolation from realistic environmental parameters (e.g. light, water flow, food supply) and other co occurring stressors (e.g. increasing sea surface temperatures, reduced water clarity due to terrestrial runoff). In my PhD project I aimed to understand how ocean acidification affects the ecophysiology of reef corals and reef communities in natural settings, and how effects may differ with concurrent exposure to variable temperature and light. I used a combination of experimental and observational studies at unique field sites with naturally high levels of CO2 (CO2 seep sites), and multi-factor experiments in the aquarium facilities of The Australian Institute of Marine Science’s National Sea Simulator to address these questions.

In chapter 2, I investigated if corals can acclimate to ocean acidification by switching their photosymbionts to types that may be able to utilise the more abundant CO2 in photosynthesis. I used molecular techniques to investigate the dominant photosymbiont types in six species of coral from the field and found them to be highly conserved within species between CO2 seep and control sites. In chapter 3, I used a combination of field surveys and a multifactor laboratory experiment to investigate if elevated CO2 increased the severity of coral thermal bleaching. Field surveys during a bleaching event at the CO2 seeps, as well as the experimental study, both showed that corals were not significantly more susceptible to thermal stress under high CO2. In chapter 4, I used a multifactor laboratory experiment to investigate if reduced or variable daily light availability affected the responses of corals to high CO2. Here I found that reductions in light levels, regardless of the variability in daily light integrals, can reduce coral growth rates more than high CO2. In chapter 5, I followed the development of early successional coral reef benthic communities on settlement tiles along a gradient of CO2 exposure at the seep sites, and further measured rates of community metabolism. Here high CO2 strongly influenced the development of communities, shifting them away from a dominance of calcifying taxa under present day conditions to a range of non-calcifying algae as CO2 levels increased. These high CO2 communities progressively recorded lower rates of calcification and higher rates of hotosynthesis at high CO2.

Results from this thesis show that the considerable changes to the CO2 seep benthic communities are likely due to secondary ecological effects, rather than the physiological effects on corals alone. Moreover, the negative effects of cooccurring stressors on corals and coral reefs will also be substantial. Hence there is an immediate need to reduce atmospheric CO2 emissions and improve the management of local stressors to prevent further declines to the health and functioning of coral reef ecosystems.

Noonan S. H. C., 2022. Responses of corals and coral reef ecosystems to ocean acidification under variable temperature and light. PhD thesis, James Cook University, 139 p. Thesis.

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