Identifying Climate-resilient Corals for the Future of Reefs
Reef corals build homes for millions of species of marine life, they support healthy ocean food webs, and they protect our coastlines. Yet corals are disappearing worldwide due to coral bleaching associated with rising ocean temperatures. To help corals survive in warming oceans, Shedd is part of an international research team delving into ways to boost coral thermal tolerance, accelerate adaptive processes and restore reefs with climate-resilient corals.
how to help
Corals and climate change
Corals are animals that rely on tiny, colorful algae living inside their tissues to provide the majority of their nutrition through photosynthesis. When waters are too warm, this symbiotic relationship breaks down, causing corals to “bleach”—that is, turn white as they lose their vital algae partners. Without their primary food source, bleached corals often succumb to starvation or disease, and the mass mortality of bleached corals threatens the entire reef ecosystem.
Some corals, however, show a remarkable ability to survive stressful bleaching events, which may reflect specialized genetic adaptation, or a relationship with thermally tolerant symbiotic algae. These glimmers of hope suggest that some corals possess the ingredients for survival in warming oceans, and that harnessing this natural resilience may allow us to accelerate adaptive processes in coral populations and restore degraded reefs.
“If we don’t address climate change, we won’t have coral reefs. But with smart science we can help corals through this turbulent time to continue building reefs for future generations.”Ross Cunning, Ph.D., Research Biologist
Scientists and practitioners around the world are working to restore reefs by growing corals in underwater nurseries and by seeding reefs with baby corals generated by sexual coral reproduction. To maximize the success of these efforts, Shedd is working with partners at SECORE International, the Perry Institute for Marine Science and the University of Miami to breed the most robust corals and produce new generations of climate-resilient corals to seed reefs of the future.
Identifying adaptability in the DNA
Shedd is expanding coral monitoring throughout the Bahamas by using its research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II, to collect samples of coral DNA. These samples are then analyzed using our state-of-the-art genetics laboratory back at Shedd to identify the genetic traits that may help corals survive and adapt in warming oceans. Identifying naturally robust corals will help to prioritize conservation efforts, to build climate-ready coral nurseries and restore degraded reefs and to accelerate the spread of resilient traits through coral populations.
From the Bahamas to reefs around the world
While mitigating climate change is the most important step to secure a future for coral reefs, active intervention and restoration approaches are also necessary to help maintain the critical ecosystem goods and services we get from reefs, from protein-rich seafood to protective buffer zones between land and sea. As the threats facing coral reefs grow, Shedd’s work in developing and applying novel, science-based coral conservation approaches in the Bahamas helps to ensure the future survival of coral reefs around the world.
Night Diving for Coral Colonies with SECORE International
Off the coast of Curaçao, a few nights after the August full moon, something is happening with elkhorn and staghorn corals.
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Ross Cunning, Ph.D.
Ross Cunning is a coral biologist and ecologist researching ways to boost coral reef resilience under climate change.