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Concept: Great Barrier Reef


Climate change affects species and ecosystems around the globe [1]. The impacts of rising temperature are particularly pertinent in species with temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), where the sex of an individual is determined by incubation temperature during embryonic development [2]. In sea turtles, the proportion of female hatchlings increases with the incubation temperature. With average global temperature predicted to increase 2.6°C by 2100 [3], many sea turtle populations are in danger of high egg mortality and female-only offspring production. Unfortunately, determining the sex ratios of hatchlings at nesting beaches carries both logistical and ethical complications. However, sex ratio data obtained at foraging grounds provides information on the amalgamation of immature and adult turtles hatched from different nesting beaches over many years. Here, for the first time, we use genetic markers and a mixed-stock analysis (MSA), combined with sex determination through laparoscopy and endocrinology, to link male and female green turtles foraging in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to the nesting beach from which they hatched. Our results show a moderate female sex bias (65%-69% female) in turtles originating from the cooler southern GBR nesting beaches, while turtles originating from warmer northern GBR nesting beaches were extremely female-biased (99.1% of juvenile, 99.8% of subadult, and 86.8% of adult-sized turtles). Combining our results with temperature data show that the northern GBR green turtle rookeries have been producing primarily females for more than two decades and that the complete feminization of this population is possible in the near future.

Concepts: Male, Sex, Reptile, Great Barrier Reef, Sex ratio, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, Sea turtle


The increase in reports of novel diseases in a wide range of ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine, has been linked to many factors including exposure to novel pathogens and changes in the global climate. Prevalence of skin cancer in particular has been found to be increasing in humans, but has not been reported in wild fish before. Here we report extensive melanosis and melanoma (skin cancer) in wild populations of an iconic, commercially-important marine fish, the coral trout Plectropomus leopardus. The syndrome reported here has strong similarities to previous studies associated with UV induced melanomas in the well-established laboratory fish model Xiphophorus. Relatively high prevalence rates of this syndrome (15%) were recorded at two offshore sites in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). In the absence of microbial pathogens and given the strong similarities to the UV-induced melanomas, we conclude that the likely cause was environmental exposure to UV radiation. Further studies are needed to establish the large scale distribution of the syndrome and confirm that the lesions reported here are the same as the melanoma in Xiphophorus, by assessing mutation of the EGFR gene, Xmrk. Furthermore, research on the potential links of this syndrome to increases in UV radiation from stratospheric ozone depletion needs to be completed.

Concepts: Cancer, Ultraviolet, Melanoma, Ozone depletion, Skin cancer, Sunburn, Sunscreen, Great Barrier Reef


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


BACKGROUND: The algal endosymbionts (genus Symbiodinium) associated with scleractinian corals (and other reef invertebrates) have received a lot of research attention in the past decade, particularly as certain host-symbiont associations appear more affected by increasing seawater temperatures than others. With the rapid accumulation of information on the diversity of Symbiodinium, it is becoming increasingly difficult to compare newly acquired Symbiodinium data with existing data to detect patterns of host-symbiont specificity on broader spatial scales. The lack of a general consensus on the classification of Symbiodinium species coupled with the variety of different markers used to identify the genus Symbiodinium (ITS1, ITS2, LSU D1/D2, chloroplast 23S rDNA and psbA minicircle) further complicate direct comparison.Description: The SymbioGBR database compiles all currently available Symbiodinium sequences and associated host information of data collected from the Great Barrier Reef into a single relational database that is accessible via a user-friendly, searchable web-based application ( SymbioGBR allows users to query Symbiodinium types or sequences sourced from various genetic markers (e.g. ITS1, ITS2, LSU D1/D2 and chloroplast 23S) and invertebrate host species to explore their reported associations. In addition, as the database includes sequence information of multiple genetic markers, it allows cross-referencing between conventional (e.g. ITS2 region) and novel markers that exhibit low intragenomic variability (e.g. psbA region). Finally, the database is based on the collection details of individual specimens. Such host-symbiont associations can be assessed quantitatively and viewed in relation to their environmental and geographic context. CONCLUSIONS: The SymbioGBR database provides a comprehensive overview of Symbiodinium diversity and host-associations on the Great Barrier Reef. It provides a quick, user-friendly means to compare newly acquired data on Symbiodinium (e.g. raw sequences or characterized Symbiodinium types) with previous data on the diversity of invertebrate host-symbiont associations on the GBR. The inclusion of psbAncr sequence information allows for validation of widely used ITS1/ITS2 markers and their ability to accurately identify relevant sequences. Most importantly, centralization of sequence information from multiple genetic markers will aid the classification of Symbiodinium species diversity and allow researchers to easily compare patterns of host-Symbiodinium associations.

Concepts: Species, Coral, Coral bleaching, Anthozoa, Great Barrier Reef, Relational algebra, Relational model, Relation


During 2015-2016, record temperatures triggered a pan-tropical episode of coral bleaching, the third global-scale event since mass bleaching was first documented in the 1980s. Here we examine how and why the severity of recurrent major bleaching events has varied at multiple scales, using aerial and underwater surveys of Australian reefs combined with satellite-derived sea surface temperatures. The distinctive geographic footprints of recurrent bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998, 2002 and 2016 were determined by the spatial pattern of sea temperatures in each year. Water quality and fishing pressure had minimal effect on the unprecedented bleaching in 2016, suggesting that local protection of reefs affords little or no resistance to extreme heat. Similarly, past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of bleaching in 2016. Consequently, immediate global action to curb future warming is essential to secure a future for coral reefs.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Coral reefs, Sea surface temperature


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


Tropical reef systems are transitioning to a new era in which the interval between recurrent bouts of coral bleaching is too short for a full recovery of mature assemblages. We analyzed bleaching records at 100 globally distributed reef locations from 1980 to 2016. The median return time between pairs of severe bleaching events has diminished steadily since 1980 and is now only 6 years. As global warming has progressed, tropical sea surface temperatures are warmer now during current La Niña conditions than they were during El Niño events three decades ago. Consequently, as we transition to the Anthropocene, coral bleaching is occurring more frequently in all El Niño-Southern Oscillation phases, increasing the likelihood of annual bleaching in the coming decades.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Sea surface temperature, Zooxanthella


Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR) continues to suffer from repeated impacts of cyclones, coral bleaching, and outbreaks of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), losing much of its coral cover in the process. This raises the question of the ecosystem’s systemic resilience and its ability to rebound after large-scale population loss. Here, we reveal that around 100 reefs of the GBR, or around 3%, have the ideal properties to facilitate recovery of disturbed areas, thereby imparting a level of systemic resilience and aiding its continued recovery. These reefs (1) are highly connected by ocean currents to the wider reef network, (2) have a relatively low risk of exposure to disturbances so that they are likely to provide replenishment when other reefs are depleted, and (3) have an ability to promote recovery of desirable species but are unlikely to either experience or spread COTS outbreaks. The great replenishment potential of these ‘robust source reefs’, which may supply 47% of the ecosystem in a single dispersal event, emerges from the interaction between oceanographic conditions and geographic location, a process that is likely to be repeated in other reef systems. Such natural resilience of reef systems will become increasingly important as the frequency of disturbances accelerates under climate change.

Concepts: Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Climate, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Crown-of-thorns starfish, Belize Barrier Reef


The world’s coral reefs are being degraded, and the need to reduce local pressures to offset the effects of increasing global pressures is now widely recognized. This study investigates the spatial and temporal dynamics of coral cover, identifies the main drivers of coral mortality, and quantifies the rates of potential recovery of the Great Barrier Reef. Based on the world’s most extensive time series data on reef condition (2,258 surveys of 214 reefs over 1985-2012), we show a major decline in coral cover from 28.0% to 13.8% (0.53% y(-1)), a loss of 50.7% of initial coral cover. Tropical cyclones, coral predation by crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), and coral bleaching accounted for 48%, 42%, and 10% of the respective estimated losses, amounting to 3.38% y(-1) mortality rate. Importantly, the relatively pristine northern region showed no overall decline. The estimated rate of increase in coral cover in the absence of cyclones, COTS, and bleaching was 2.85% y(-1), demonstrating substantial capacity for recovery of reefs. In the absence of COTS, coral cover would increase at 0.89% y(-1), despite ongoing losses due to cyclones and bleaching. Thus, reducing COTS populations, by improving water quality and developing alternative control measures, could prevent further coral decline and improve the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef. Such strategies can, however, only be successful if climatic conditions are stabilized, as losses due to bleaching and cyclones will otherwise increase.

Concepts: Time, Coral, Coral reef, Coral bleaching, Time series, Great Barrier Reef, Coral reefs, Crown-of-thorns starfish