Bleached corals can recover by growing more algae or acquiring new algae once water temperatures return to normal. This research shows that corals' ability to switch the type of algae that they internally grow has a large effect on their recovery.
But if corals don't recover and reefs die, thousands of fish species and other sea creatures lose their habitat.
Normally, bleaching is a rare event. But by 2025, Caribbean waters are expected to be hot enough that the coral living there will be stressed to the point of bleaching once a year. The rest of the tropics are expected to experience annual bleaching by 2050.
Previous studies have only followed coral through one bleaching event, or through two events several years apart. So Grottoli and her team tested what would happen if they subjected some common Caribbean corals to bleaching for two years in a row.
Corals can supplement their diet by eating plankton, but they get most of their energy from their symbiotic relationship with algae. The algae get nutrients from the coral, and the corals get to siphon off sugars that the algae produce in photosynthesis. Like humans, corals can store excess energy as fat.
Two key survival strategies emerged in this study: the most resilient corals stored up fat reserves in times of plenty, and were willing to switch to a new dominant algal type in order to gather food in times of stress. Corals that didn't store fat or were stuck with their algal partner didn't fare as well.
And species that bounced back from one round of bleaching didn't necessarily bounce back a second time.
"We found that the research on single bleaching events is misleading," Grottoli said. "Species that we think are resilient to temperature stress are actually susceptible and vice versa when stressed annually."
Grottoli and her colleagues tested three corals from Puerto Morelos Reef National Park, off the coast of Mexico. Two years
|Contact: Pam Frost Gorder|
Ohio State University