Short-Term Heating Helps Corals Survive Greater Long-Term Warming
Oliver, T.A. and Palumbi, S.R. 2011. Do fluctuating temperature environments elevate coral thermal tolerance? Coral Reefs 30: 429-440.
Taking advantage of back-reef pools in American Samoa that differ in diurnal thermal variation, Oliver and Palumbi experimentally heat-stressed Acropora hyacinthus corals from a thermally moderate lagoon pool and a more thermally-variable pool that naturally experienced 2- to 3-hour high temperature events during summer low tides, after which they compared coral mortality and photosystem II photochemical efficiency of colony fragments they collected from each of these lagoons that they exposed to either ambient (28.0°C) or elevated (31.5°C) water temperatures.
The two researchers report that in the heated treatment, "moderate pool corals showed nearly 50% mortality whether they hosted heat-sensitive or heat-resistant symbionts," while "variable pool corals, all of which hosted heat-resistant symbionts, survived well, showing low mortalities statistically indistinguishable from controls held at ambient temperatures." Also in the heated treatment, they say that "moderate pool corals hosting heat-sensitive algae showed rapid rates of decline in algal photosystem II photochemical efficiency," while those "hosting heat-resistant algae showed intermediate levels of decline." And, as by now might have been expected, they state that "variable pool corals hosting heat-resistant algae showed the least decline."
Oliver and Palumbi say their results suggest that "previous exposure to an environmentally variable microhabitat adds substantially to coral-algal thermal tolerance, beyond that provided by heat-resistant symbionts alone," indicative of the latent ability of earth's corals to potentially adapt to warmer temperatures than have been believed to be possible in the past, as they -- or if they -- gradually begin to experience recurring daily episodes of greater warmth in a gradually warming world.
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