False Alarm: Spate Of New Studies Reject Claim Corals Are In Imminent Danger!

Coral reefs keep cool

By Dr. Sebastian Lüning and Prof. Fritz Vahrenholt
(German text translated by P Gosselin)

Coral horror stories have long been among the favorites of the media. Lately, however, a number of journalists have been taking a closer look at the state of the coral reefs. A good example is an article appearing in the German Spektrum der Wissenschaft (Spectrum of Science) on October 24, 2016, where Kerstin Viering did not allow research results to be swept away under the carpet:

Why some coral reefs are defying all the problems
Climate change, pollution, over-fishing: Coral reefs do not have it easy today. Some reefs, however, have been holding up amazingly well. A reason for optimism?”

Continue reading at Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

Currently research is making good progress. Slowly scientists are beginning to understand how corals are able to adapt to changed conditions. A press release from the University of Texas at Austin from November 7, 2016:

New Coral Research Exposes Genomic Underpinnings of Adaptation

Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin have observed for the first time that separate populations of the same species — in this case, coral — can diverge in their capacity to regulate genes when adapting to their local environment. The research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, reveals a new way for populations to adapt that may help predict how they will fare under climate change.

The new research was based on populations of mustard hill coral, Porites astreoides, living around the Lower Florida Keys. Corals from close to shore are adapted to a more variable environment because there is greater fluctuation in temperature and water quality: imagine them as the more cosmopolitan coral, adapted to handling occasional stressful events that the offshore coral are spared. When researchers swapped corals from a close-to-shore area with a population of the same species from offshore waters, they found that the inshore-reef corals made bigger changes in their gene activity than the corals collected from an offshore reef. This enabled the inshore corals to adapt better to their new environment.

“It is exciting that populations so close together — these reefs are less than 5 miles apart — can be so different,” says corresponding author Carly Kenkel, currently affiliated with the Australian Institute of Marine Science. “We’ve discovered another way that corals can enhance their temperature tolerance, which may be important in determining their response to climate change.”

Differences in gene regulation — the body’s ability to make specific genes more or less active — can be inherited and are pivotal for adapting to environmental change. It was already known that separate populations often develop differences in average levels of gene activity, but now scientists have found that populations can also diverge in their ability to switch genes on and off.

“We show that one population has adapted to its more variable environment by developing an enhanced ability to regulate gene activity,” says Mikhail Matz, co-author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology.

Researchers swapped 15 genetically distinct coral colonies from inshore with 15 colonies found offshore to see whether the corals would regulate their genes to match the pattern observed in the local population. After a year, the transplanted populations did show differences: Formerly inshore corals transplanted offshore changed their gene activity dramatically to closely resemble the locals, whereas offshore corals transplanted inshore were able to go only halfway toward the local gene activity levels. In short, corals that originated from the more variable, close to shore environment were more flexible in their gene regulation.

The lack of flexibility took its toll on the offshore corals, which did not fare well at the inshore reef and experienced stress-induced bleaching. Their higher bleaching levels were linked to the diminished ability to dynamically regulate activity of stress-related genes, confirming that flexibility of gene regulation was an important component of adaptation to the inshore environment.

“We saw different capacity for gene expression plasticity between coral populations because we looked at the behavior of all genes taken together instead of focusing on individual genes,” says Kenkel. “If we hadn’t, we would have missed the reef for the coral, so to speak.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology.

Ten days later the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute issued a hopeful press release showing that some coral reefs are tougher than long believed:

Corals Survived Caribbean Climate Change

Half of all coral species in the Caribbean went extinct between 1 and 2 million years ago, probably due to drastic environmental changes. Which ones survived? Scientists working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) think one group of survivors, corals in the genus Orbicella, will continue to adapt to future climate changes because of their high genetic diversity.

“Having a lot of genetic variants is like buying a lot of lottery tickets,” said Carlos Prada, lead author of the study and Earl S. Tupper Post-doctoral Fellow at STRI. “We discovered that even small numbers of individuals in three different species of the reef-building coral genus Orbicella have quite a bit of genetic variation, and therefore, are likely to adapt to big changes in their environment.”

“The implications of these findings go beyond basic science,” said Monica Medina, research associate at STRI and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and associate professor at Pennsylvania State University. “We can look forward to using similar approaches to predict demographic models to better manage the climate change-threatened Orbicella reefs of today.”

To look back in time, the team of researchers working at the Smithsonian’s Bocas del Toro Research Station and Naos Molecular and Marine Laboratories collected fossils from ancient coral reefs and used high-resolution geologic dating methods to determine their ages. They compared the numbers of fossilized coral species at different time points. One of the best-represented groups in the fossil collections were species in the genus Orbicella. In addition to the fossil collections, they also used whole genome sequencing to estimate current and past numbers of several Orbicella species.

Within a single individual there are two copies of their genetic material, and in some instances, one copy is different than the other and is called a genetic variant. The authors first assembled the full genomic sequence of an individual from Florida and then, using it as an anchor, reconstructed the genetic variation contained within single individuals. Depending on the amount of the genetic variation at certain intervals across the genome, the authors were able to recover the population sizes of each species at different times in the past.

Between 3.5 to 2.5 million years ago, numbers of all coral species increased in the Caribbean. But from 2 to 1.5 million years ago, a time when glaciers moved down to cover much of the northern hemisphere and sea surface temperatures plunged, the number of coral species in the Caribbean also took a nosedive. Sea levels fell, eliminating much of the original shallow, near-shore habitat.

“Apart from the species that exist today, all species of Orbicella that survived until 2 million years ago suddenly went extinct,” write the authors. When huge numbers of species die out, it makes room for other species to move in and for new species to develop to occupy the space the others held.

Two species that grow best in shallow water doubled in number at about the same time that their sister species and competitor, the organ pipe Orbicella (O. nancyi) disappeared.

When a species declines during an extinction event, it loses more and more genetic variation and sometimes does not have much to work with during the recovery period. Scientists call this a genetic bottleneck. Orbicella was able to recover after the bottleneck.

“It’s incredible how predictions from genetic data correlated so well with observations from the fossil and environmental record,” said Michael DeGiorgio, assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University.

“We see hope in our results that Orbicella species survived a dramatic environmental variation event,” said Prada. “It is likely that surviving such difficult times made these coral populations more robust and able to persist under future climatic change.”

“The in-depth analysis of population size in a now ESA-threatened coral, as well as the release of its genome and that of its close relatives (which are also threatened) would be of great interest to coral reef researchers addressing conservation issues,” said Nancy Knowlton, senior scientist emeritus at STRI, currently at the National Museum of Natural History.

Authors are from STRI, the National Museum of Natural History, Pennsylvania State University, University of Iowa, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hudson Alpha Institute of Biotechnology, Universidad Nacional Autónoma, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and University of Queensland School of Biological Sciences, Florida State University, Natural History Museum and the Systems Biology Institute.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems. Website: http://www.stri.si.edu.

Prada, C., Hanna, B., Budd, A.F., et al. 2016. Empty niches after extinctions increase population sizes of modern corals. Current Biology.”

Already in June 2015 Sascha Karberg wrote an impressively balanced article in German weekly Die Zeit:

Corals remain cool
Water that is too warm lead to the bleaching of corals. However special genes could help protect the reef forming animals. They also appear to do fine with acidification.

Corals do not need to wait for the chance gene mutation that would make them fit for the climate warming – the needed gene variants are already at hand. Biologists have discovered this when the crossed corals from warm and old climate zones. In order to prevent the corals from dying off, it would simply be enough to switch corals from different latitudes so that the existing gene variants could spread,”, says Mikhail Matz of the University of Texas in Austin.

Read more in Die Zeit. Similar articles appeared at the Austrian ORF and the German Tagesspiegel.

What follows is the press release from the University of Texas at Austin dated June 25, 2015:

Corals Are Already Adapting to Global Warming, Scientists Say

Some coral populations already have genetic variants necessary to tolerate warm ocean waters, and humans can help to spread these genes, a team of scientists from The University of Texas at Austin, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Oregon State University has found.

The discovery has implications for many reefs now threatened by global warming and shows for the first time that mixing and matching corals from different latitudes may boost reef survival. The findings are published this week in the journal Science.

The researchers crossed corals from naturally warmer areas of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia with corals from a cooler latitude nearly 300 miles to the south. The scientists found that coral larvae with parents from the north, where waters were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer, were up to 10 times as likely to survive heat stress, compared with those with parents from the south. Using genomic tools, the researchers identified the biological processes responsible for heat tolerance and demonstrated that heat tolerance could evolve rapidly based on existing genetic variation.

“Our research found that corals do not have to wait for new mutations to appear. Averting coral extinction may start with something as simple as an exchange of coral immigrants to spread already existing genetic variants,” said Mikhail Matz, an associate professor of integrative biology at The University of Texas at Austin. “Coral larvae can move across oceans naturally, but humans could also contribute, relocating adult corals to jump-start the process.”

Worldwide, coral reefs have been badly damaged by rising sea surface temperatures. Bleaching — a process that can cause widespread coral death due to loss of the symbiotic algae that corals depend on for food — has been linked to warming waters. Some corals, however, have higher tolerance for elevated temperatures, though until now no one understood why some adapted differently than others.

“This discovery adds to our understanding of the potential for coral to cope with hotter oceans,” said Line Bay, an evolutionary ecologist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville.

Reef-building corals from species in the northern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea are similar to those used in the study. There, too, reefs may benefit from conservation and restoration efforts that protect the most heat-tolerant corals and prioritize them for any restoration initiatives involving artificial propagation.

“This is occasion for hope and optimism about coral reefs and the marine life that thrive there,” Matz said.

In addition to Matz and Bay, the study’s authors were Groves Dixon, Sarah Davies and Galina Aglyamova at UT Austin and Eli Meyer of Oregon State University.

This study was supported by funds from the National Science Foundation and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

View a slideshow of images from the Great Barrier Reef.”

 

8 responses to “False Alarm: Spate Of New Studies Reject Claim Corals Are In Imminent Danger!”

  1. yonason

    Oh, I see. It wasn’t Bleachbit, but CO2 that erased Hillary Clinton’s hard drive?

    Well, I guess CO2 really IS dangerous. /s/

  2. crosspatch

    It wasn’t so long ago that the entire Great Barrier Reef was 100 meters above sea level baking in the hot sun. Things change, corals adapt.

  3. John F. Hultquist

    Note the dates mentioned in the study above, and these:

    http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/how-the-isthmus-of-panama-put-ice-in-the-arctic
    About 5 million years ago, the North American, South American, and Caribbean Plates began to converge. The gradual shoaling of the Central American Seaway began to restrict the exchange of water between the Pacific and Atlantic, and their salinities diverged.

    A growing body of evidence suggests that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama partitioned the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and fundamentally changed global ocean circulation. The closing of the Central American Seaway initially may have warmed Earth’s climate, but then set the stage for glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere at 2.7 million years ago.

  4. AndyG55

    OT, but just for sop.

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-12-21/us-economic-confidence-surges-highest-level-gallup-has-ever-recorded

    “The “Trumphoria” that has gripped the nation ever since Donald Trump’s miraculous victory on election night shows no signs of letting up”

    Enjoy, as the USA prospers, sop. 🙂

  5. garyh845

    . . and here’s another study with good news. A San Diego Paper presented it like this:

    Earlier in the year a “report from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego provides reason for optimism.”

    In a massive project spanning 56 islands, researchers examined 450 coral reef locations from Hawaii to American Samoa, with stops in the remote Line and Phoenix islands as well as the Mariana Archipelago. Their results — published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B — show that coral reefs surrounding remote islands were dramatically healthier than those in populated areas that were subject to a variety of human influences.

    “There are still coral reefs on this planet that are incredibly healthy and probably look the way they did 1,000 years ago,” said study leader Jennifer Smith, a professor at Scripps’ Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation.

    “The scientists were practically in tears when we saw some of these reefs,” she added. “We’ve never experienced anything like it in our lives. It was an almost religious experience.”

    I liked the ‘1,000 years ago,’ bit; right smack in the middle of the MWP – I bet it did look about the same.

    Study is here: http://scrippsscholars.ucsd.edu/jes013/content/re-evaluating-health-coral-reef-communities-baselines-and-evidence-human-impacts-across-cent

  6. garyh845

    . . and here’s another study with good news. A San Diego Paper presented it like this:

    Earlier in the year a “report from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego provides reason for optimism.”

    In a massive project spanning 56 islands, researchers examined 450 coral reef locations from Hawaii to American Samoa, with stops in the remote Line and Phoenix islands as well as the Mariana Archipelago. Their results — published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B — show that coral reefs surrounding remote islands were dramatically healthier than those in populated areas that were subject to a variety of human influences.

    “There are still coral reefs on this planet that are incredibly healthy and probably look the way they did 1,000 years ago,” said study leader Jennifer Smith, a professor at Scripps’ Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation.

    “The scientists were practically in tears when we saw some of these reefs,” she added. “We’ve never experienced anything like it in our lives. It was an almost religious experience.”

    I liked the ‘1,000 years ago,’ bit; right smack in the middle of the MWP – I bet it did look about the same.

    Study is here: http://scrippsscholars.ucsd.edu/jes013/content/re-evaluating-health-coral-reef-communities-baselines-and-evidence-human-impacts-across-cent

  7. garyh845

    Here’s another study with good news. A San Diego Paper presented it like this:

    Earlier in the year a “report from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego provides reason for optimism.”

    In a massive project spanning 56 islands, researchers examined 450 coral reef locations from Hawaii to American Samoa, with stops in the remote Line and Phoenix islands as well as the Mariana Archipelago. Their results — published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B — show that coral reefs surrounding remote islands were dramatically healthier than those in populated areas that were subject to a variety of human influences.

    “There are still coral reefs on this planet that are incredibly healthy and probably look the way they did 1,000 years ago,” said study leader Jennifer Smith, a professor at Scripps’ Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation.

    “The scientists were practically in tears when we saw some of these reefs,” she added. “We’ve never experienced anything like it in our lives. It was an almost religious experience.”

    I liked the ‘1,000 years ago,’ bit; right smack in the middle of the MWP – I bet it did look about the same.

    Study is here: http://scrippsscholars.ucsd.edu/jes013/content/re-evaluating-health-coral-reef-communities-baselines-and-evidence-human-impacts-across-cent

    Note to Mod – oddly this is the third time I posted this – seems to work, then nothing happens. If it’s waiting to be approved – there is no such message.

  8. tom0mason

    Yep those corals are real fragile…
    Bikini Island a coral atoll subjected to US hydrogen bomb test that vaporized 2/3 of it, and irradiated the rest of the Marshall Islands. The corals have survived well http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X07004523, the people very much less so — http://bikiniatoll.com/history.html