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Concept: Coral reef


Tropical corals live close to their upper thermal limit making them vulnerable to unusually warm summer sea temperatures. The resulting thermal stress can lead to breakdown of the coral-algal symbiosis, essential for the functioning of reefs, and cause coral bleaching. Mass coral bleaching is a modern phenomenon associated with increases in reef temperatures due to recent global warming. Widespread bleaching has typically occurred during El Niño events. We examine the historical level of stress for 100 coral reef locations with robust bleaching histories. The level of thermal stress (based on a degree heating month index, DHMI) at these locations during the 2015-2016 El Niño was unprecedented over the period 1871-2017 and exceeded that of the strong 1997-1998 El Niño. The DHMI was also 5 times the level of thermal stress associated with the ‘pre-industrial’, 1877-1878, El Niño. Coral reefs have, therefore, already shown their vulnerability to the modest (~0.92 °C) global warming that has occurred to date. Estimates of future levels of thermal stress suggest that even the optimistic 1.5 °C Paris Agreement target is insufficient to prevent more frequent mass bleaching events for the world’s reefs. Effectively, reefs of the future will not be the same as those of the past.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Coral bleaching, Cnidaria, Coral reefs, Brain coral


Global warming is rapidly emerging as a universal threat to ecological integrity and function, highlighting the urgent need for a better understanding of the impact of heat exposure on the resilience of ecosystems and the people who depend on them 1 . Here we show that in the aftermath of the record-breaking marine heatwave on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 2 , corals began to die immediately on reefs where the accumulated heat exposure exceeded a critical threshold of degree heating weeks, which was 3-4 °C-weeks. After eight months, an exposure of 6 °C-weeks or more drove an unprecedented, regional-scale shift in the composition of coral assemblages, reflecting markedly divergent responses to heat stress by different taxa. Fast-growing staghorn and tabular corals suffered a catastrophic die-off, transforming the three-dimensionality and ecological functioning of 29% of the 3,863 reefs comprising the world’s largest coral reef system. Our study bridges the gap between the theory and practice of assessing the risk of ecosystem collapse, under the emerging framework for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems 3 , by rigorously defining both the initial and collapsed states, identifying the major driver of change, and establishing quantitative collapse thresholds. The increasing prevalence of post-bleaching mass mortality of corals represents a radical shift in the disturbance regimes of tropical reefs, both adding to and far exceeding the influence of recurrent cyclones and other local pulse events, presenting a fundamental challenge to the long-term future of these iconic ecosystems.

Concepts: Ecology, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Ecosystem, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Belize Barrier Reef


Acute catastrophic events can cause significant damage to marine environments in a short time period and may have devastating long-term impacts. In April 2010 the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon (DWH) offshore oil rig exploded, releasing an estimated 760 million liters of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This study examines the potential effects of oil spill exposure on coral larvae of the Florida Keys. Larvae of the brooding coral, Porites astreoides, and the broadcast spawning coral, Montastraea faveolata, were exposed to multiple concentrations of BP Horizon source oil (crude, weathered and WAF), oil in combination with the dispersant Corexit® 9500 (CEWAF), and dispersant alone, and analyzed for behavior, settlement, and survival. Settlement and survival of P. astreoides and M. faveolata larvae decreased with increasing concentrations of WAF, CEWAF and Corexit® 9500, however the degree of the response varied by species and solution. P. astreoides larvae experienced decreased settlement and survival following exposure to 0.62 ppm source oil, while M. faveolata larvae were negatively impacted by 0.65, 1.34 and 1.5 ppm, suggesting that P. astreoides larvae may be more tolerant to WAF exposure than M. faveolata larvae. Exposure to medium and high concentrations of CEWAF (4.28/18.56 and 30.99/35.76 ppm) and dispersant Corexit® 9500 (50 and 100 ppm), significantly decreased larval settlement and survival for both species. Furthermore, exposure to Corexit® 9500 resulted in settlement failure and complete larval mortality after exposure to 50 and 100 ppm for M. faveolata and 100 ppm for P. astreoides. These results indicate that exposure of coral larvae to oil spill related contaminants, particularly the dispersant Corexit® 9500, has the potential to negatively impact coral settlement and survival, thereby affecting the resilience and recovery of coral reefs following exposure to oil and dispersants.

Concepts: Petroleum, Coral, Coral reef, Gulf of Mexico, Exxon Valdez oil spill, Oil spill, Florida Keys, Oil platform


Herbivory is widely accepted as a vital function on coral reefs. To date, the majority of studies examining herbivory in coral reef environments have focused on the roles of fishes and/or urchins, with relatively few studies considering the potential role of macroherbivores in reef processes. Here, we introduce evidence that highlights the potential role of marine turtles as herbivores on coral reefs. While conducting experimental habitat manipulations to assess the roles of herbivorous reef fishes we observed green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) showing responses that were remarkably similar to those of herbivorous fishes. Reducing the sediment load of the epilithic algal matrix on a coral reef resulted in a forty-fold increase in grazing by green turtles. Hawksbill turtles were also observed to browse transplanted thalli of the macroalga Sargassum swartzii in a coral reef environment. These responses not only show strong parallels to herbivorous reef fishes, but also highlight that marine turtles actively, and intentionally, remove algae from coral reefs. When considering the size and potential historical abundance of marine turtles we suggest that these potentially valuable herbivores may have been lost from many coral reefs before their true importance was understood.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Herbivore, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle, Green turtle


Calcium carbonate skeletons of scleractinian corals amplify light availability to their algal symbionts by diffuse scattering, optimizing photosynthetic energy acquisition. However, the mechanism of scattering and its role in coral evolution and dissolution of algal symbioses during “bleaching” events are largely unknown. Here we show that differences in skeletal fractal architecture at nano/micro-lengthscales within 96 coral taxa result in an 8-fold variation in light-scattering and considerably alter the algal light environment. We identified a continuum of properties that fall between two extremes: (1) corals with low skeletal fractality that are efficient at transporting and redistributing light throughout the colony with low scatter but are at higher risk of bleaching and (2) corals with high skeletal fractality that are inefficient at transporting and redistributing light with high scatter and are at lower risk of bleaching. While levels of excess light derived from the coral skeleton is similar in both groups, the low-scatter corals have a higher rate of light-amplification increase when symbiont concentration is reduced during bleaching, thus creating a positive feedback-loop between symbiont concentration and light-amplification that exposes the remaining symbionts to increasingly higher light intensities. By placing our findings in an evolutionary framework, in conjunction with a novel empirical index of coral bleaching susceptibility, we find significant correlations between bleaching susceptibility and light-scattering despite rich homoplasy in both characters; suggesting that the cost of enhancing light-amplification to the algae is revealed in decreased resilience of the partnership to stress.

Concepts: Algae, Photosynthesis, Evolution, Symbiosis, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Endosymbiont


Increasingly frequent severe coral bleaching is among the greatest threats to coral reefs posed by climate change. Global climate models (GCMs) project great spatial variation in the timing of annual severe bleaching (ASB) conditions; a point at which reefs are certain to change and recovery will be limited. However, previous model-resolution projections (~1 × 1°) are too coarse to inform conservation planning. To meet the need for higher-resolution projections, we generated statistically downscaled projections (4-km resolution) for all coral reefs; these projections reveal high local-scale variation in ASB. Timing of ASB varies >10 years in 71 of the 87 countries and territories with >500 km(2) of reef area. Emissions scenario RCP4.5 represents lower emissions mid-century than will eventuate if pledges made following the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) become reality. These pledges do little to provide reefs with more time to adapt and acclimate prior to severe bleaching conditions occurring annually. RCP4.5 adds 11 years to the global average ASB timing when compared to RCP8.5; however, >75% of reefs still experience ASB before 2070 under RCP4.5. Coral reef futures clearly vary greatly among and within countries, indicating the projections warrant consideration in most reef areas during conservation and management planning.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Climate, Ecosystem, Climate change, Climate model, Global climate model


In the recent discussion how biotic systems may react to ocean acidification caused by the rapid rise in carbon dioxide partial pressure (pCO(2)) in the marine realm, substantial research is devoted to calcifiers such as stony corals. The antagonistic process - biologically induced carbonate dissolution via bioerosion - has largely been neglected. Unlike skeletal growth, we expect bioerosion by chemical means to be facilitated in a high-CO(2) world. This study focuses on one of the most detrimental bioeroders, the sponge Cliona orientalis, which attacks and kills live corals on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Experimental exposure to lowered and elevated levels of pCO(2) confirms a significant enforcement of the sponges' bioerosion capacity with increasing pCO(2) under more acidic conditions. Considering the substantial contribution of sponges to carbonate bioerosion, this finding implies that tropical reef ecosystems are facing the combined effects of weakened coral calcification and accelerated bioerosion, resulting in critical pressure on the dynamic balance between biogenic carbonate build-up and degradation.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Oxygen, Carbon dioxide, Coral, Coral reef, Carbon, Carbonic acid, Great Barrier Reef


BACKGROUND: Knowledge of genetic markers that are correlated to stress tolerance may improve spatial mapping of reef vulnerability and can inform restoration efforts, including the choice of genotypes for breeding and reseeding. In this manuscript we present two methods for screening transcriptome data for candidate genetic markers in two reef building corals, Acropora millepora and Pocillopora damicornis (types alpha and beta). In A. millepora, Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) were pre-selected by targeting genes believed to be involved in the coral thermal stress responses. In P. damicornis (type alpha and beta), SNPs showing varying allele frequencies between two populations from distinct environments were pre-selected. Allele frequencies at nine, five and eight of the pre-selected SNP loci were correlated against gradients of water clarity and temperature in a large number of populations along the Great Barrier Reef. RESULTS: A significant correlation between environmental category and SNP allele frequency was detected in up to 55% of the tested loci, which is an exceptional success rate for these types of tests. In P. damicornis, SNP allele frequencies of beta-hexosaminidase and Elongation factor 1-alpha were significantly correlated to temperature in type alpha and to temperature and/or water clarity respectively in type beta. Type alpha also showed a correlation between water clarity and SNP allele frequency in a gene of unknown function. In A. millepora, allele frequencies at five (beta-gamma crystallin, Galaxin, Ubiquitin, Ligand of Numb X2 and Thioredoxin) SNP loci showed significant correlations. CONCLUSIONS: After validation of these candidate loci through laboratory or field assessment of relative stress tolerance of colonies harbouring different alleles, it is anticipated that a proportion of these markers may represent the first coral candidate Quantitative Trait Loci for environmental stress tolerance and provide an important genetic tool that can be incorporated into spatial management decisions and restoration efforts of coral reefs. One pertinent example would be to combine spatial data of tolerant populations with genetic connectivity and thus identify high priority conservation reefs and implement targeted coral husbandry and active restoration efforts that use locally- and stress-adapted genotypes.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Allele, Evolution, Coral, Coral reef, Great Barrier Reef


Eyespots on the body of many animals have long been assumed to confer protection against predators, but empirical evidence has recently demonstrated that this may not always be the case and suggested that such markings may also serve other purposes. Clearly, this raises the unresolved question of what functions do these markings have and do they contribute to an individual’s evolutionary fitness in the wild. Here, we examined the occurrence of eyespots on the dorsal fin of a coral reef damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis), where these markings are typical of the juvenile stage and fade away as the fish approaches sexual maturation to then disappear completely in the vast majority of, but not all, adult individuals. By exploring differences in body shape among age and gender groups, we found that individuals retaining the eyespot into adulthood are all sexually mature males, suggesting that these eyespots may be an adult deceptive signal. Interestingly, the body shape of these individuals resembled more closely that of immature females than mature dominant males. These results suggest that eyespots have multiple roles and their functional significance changes within the lifetime of an animal from being a juvenile advertisement to a deceptive adult signal. Male removal experiments or colour manipulations may be necessary to establish specific functions.

Concepts: Male, Reproduction, Female, Animal, Coral reef, Gender, Sex, Pomacentridae


Current understanding of the factors influencing hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) hatch success is disparate and based on relatively short-term studies or limited sample sizes. Because global populations of hawksbills are heavily depleted, evaluating the parameters that impact hatch success is important to their conservation and recovery. Here, we use data collected by the Jumby Bay Hawksbill Project (JBHP) to investigate hatch success. The JBHP implements saturation tagging protocols to study a hawksbill rookery in Antigua, West Indies. Habitat data, which reflect the varied nesting beaches, are collected at egg deposition, and nest contents are exhumed and categorized post-emergence. We analyzed hatch success using mixed-model analyses with explanatory and predictive datasets. We incorporated a random effect for turtle identity and evaluated environmental, temporal and individual-based reproductive variables. Hatch success averaged 78.6% (SD: 21.2%) during the study period. Highly supported models included multiple covariates, including distance to vegetation, deposition date, individual intra-seasonal nest number, clutch size, organic content, and sand grain size. Nests located in open sand were predicted to produce 10.4 more viable hatchlings per clutch than nests located >1.5 m into vegetation. For an individual first nesting in early July, the fourth nest of the season yielded 13.2 more viable hatchlings than the initial clutch. Generalized beach section and inter-annual variation were also supported in our explanatory dataset, suggesting that gaps remain in our understanding of hatch success. Our findings illustrate that evaluating hatch success is a complex process, involving multiple environmental and individual variables. Although distance to vegetation and hatch success were inversely related, vegetation is an important component of hawksbill nesting habitat, and a more complete assessment of the impacts of specific vegetation types on hatch success and hatchling sex ratios is needed. Future research should explore the roles of sand structure, nest moisture, and local weather conditions.

Concepts: Coral reef, Sand, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle, Green turtle, Kemp's Ridley, Sea turtles