Coral reefs could be saved by reducing global warming: Study

Localised attempts alone can’t save the corals reefs but a worldwide effort is needed to reduce global warming that could save the reefs, suggested a study.

The research was published in Scientific Reports.

Ocean habitats are increasingly under human-caused stress in the forms of pollution and global warming.

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Coral reefs are found in less than one per cent of the ocean but are home to nearly one-quarter of all known marine species. Reefs also help regulate the sea’s carbon dioxide levels and are a crucial hunting ground that scientists use in the search for new medicines.

Corals are home to a complex composition of dinoflagellates, fungi, bacteria and archaea that together make up the coral microbiome. Shifts in microbiome composition are connected to changes in coral health.

Rebecca Maher led the study, which involved coral samples collected off the coast of Moorea, a South Pacific island that’s part of French Polynesia.

“We subjected the corals to three stressors: increased temperature, nutrient enrichment – meaning pollution – and manual scarring. We scarred the corals with pliers, which were meant to simulate fish biting the coral.”

The scientists then studied how these stressors can interact to negatively affect the coral microbiome and thus coral health.

“We found that with every form of stress, the amount of ‘friendly’ bacteria decreases in the coral and the amount of ‘unfriendly’ or disease-related bacteria increases. Stressed corals had more unstable microbiomes, possibly leading to more disease and coral death,” Maher said.

The researchers were surprised to learn that a pair of different stressors unleashed on the corals at the same time didn’t necessarily result in twice the stress – in fact, sometimes there was less effect from two stressors than one. But all three stressors at play together seemed to fuel each other.

The simulated fish bites proved a significant environmental stressor, but “high temperature seemed to be the nail in the coffin,” added Maher.

“There is no magical number of stressors, but multiple stressors may interact in ways that we would not expect and that can depend on the type of stressor – human vs. environmental – or the severity of the stress,” Maher said.

“Therefore, we should take care to understand these interactions before attempting to manage them with conservation actions. Our work is an important step in informing those actions by providing insights into how the coral and its microbiome will change under increasing human impacts,” Maher added.

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