Going Green

Research Project Aims to Explain Unique Resilience of Gulf Corals


The ability of coral reefs in the Arabian Gulf to survive in exceptionally high temperatures will provide important scientific insights for the future of coral reefs throughout the world, scientists from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and the University of Southampton at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS), said.

Coral reefs thrive at a temperature of around 28 degrees Celsius, and even slight warming can result in mortality; yet those in the Arabian Gulf are able to withstand a maximum temperature of 36 degrees Celsius. NYUAD and NOCS are collaborating to develop a more robust picture of how extreme temperatures impact coral communities in the region, and to better understand the mechanisms that allow these corals to survive in relatively hostile environmental conditions.

Research published this week in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin has found that the prevalent algal species found in Gulf corals are a “generalist” type also found in other climates — not the “thermo-tolerant” strains previously believed to help corals survive the region’s high temperatures.

Dr. John Burt, head of the Marine Biology Laboratory at NYUAD, explained, “Corals have a symbiotic relationship with algae that live within their tissue and provide them with food. There are many groups of such algae out there, and some are considered more tolerant of high temperatures than others; what this recent collaborative research has shown is that Gulf corals are dominated by algae that were not previously thought to be tolerant of thermal stress.”

“We see that the algae are indeed special in Gulf corals, but in a way that we did not expect,” Dr. Wiedenmann, head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at NOCS, said. “The algae that we found in most of the corals from Abu Dhabi were previously described as a ‘generalist strain’ that is commonly found in several parts of the world, but usually not in corals exposed to high levels of heat stress. Our results suggest that the algae are not solely responsible for the heat resistance of Gulf corals and that we need to look closer into other mechanisms that might render the corals more resilient.”

The team will continue their interdisciplinary collaboration and combine field ecology studies with molecular approaches to investigate the unexplained question of why some Gulf corals are specifically associating with this strain of algae.

Burt said, “Clearly, corals in the Gulf are capable of pulling off some tricks that science hasn’t yet figured out, and they provide hope that corals might be more resilient to climate change than we’d previously thought.”

A link to the full article, “Corals from the Persian/Arabian Gulf as models for thermo-tolerant reef-builders: Prevalence of clade C3 Symbiodinium, host fluorescence and ex situ temperature tolerance,” can be found here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X1200570X.




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