- A study of the past using genetic evidence has revealed that coral reefs have survived the effects of climate change in the past.
- The study found that coral reefs have endured numerous climate change events in the past.
- This resilient character to reef-building corals is as a result of their symbiotic relationship with micro-algae.
- Thus the study concluded that marine reefs could survive modern-day global warming too.
- The study has shown that the symbiotic relationship between corals and the mutualistic micro-algae renders diversity to reef-building corals.
- The diversity of micro-algae helps corals survive global warming despite the bad effects of coral bleaching.
- Further, the study indicates the relationship between corals and the mutualistic micro-algae is much older – around 160 million years than previously assumed (50 to 65 million years).
- Using genetic evidence, the scientists calculated the micro-algae’s approximate age of origin which was around 160 million years ago.
- Further, the study found diversity in micro-algae was far more than previously assumed.
- The researchers found that this was the time when corals exploded in diversity.
- The diversity in algae, and consequently corals, makes them more resilient to environmental changes.
Climate change and Coral Reefs
- Coral Bleaching
- When coral polyps are too hot, they expel their zooxanthellae.
- Since zooxanthellae are responsible for the colors of many corals, when coral polyps expel their zooxanthellae, the coral turn white, a phenomenon called coral bleaching.
- The zooxanthellae return to the polyps when the water cools, but repeated bleaching events lead to the death of the coral polyps.
Result of new study
- Though warm waters as a result of global warming results in coral bleaching, it could be offset by diversity the algae renders to corals.
About coral reefs:
- Coral reefs are large underwater structures composed of the skeletons of coral, which are marine invertebrate animals.
- The coral species that build coral reefs are known as hermatypic or “hard” corals because they extract calcium carbonate from seawater to create a hard, durable exoskeleton that protects their soft, sac-like bodies.
- Each individual coral is referred to as a polyp.
Mutualism between micro-algae and coral
- A species interaction in which both species benefit from the interaction is called as mutualism.
- The relationship between corals and photosynthetic algae living inside their tissues is the best example of mutualism.
- Coral polyps can obtain most of their nutrition from algae, called zooxanthellae.
- Zooxanthellae live symbiotically within the polyps.
- These algae use the carbon dioxide produced by the polyps to conduct photosynthesis.
- In turn zooxanthellae are responsible for the colors and diversity of them to polyps.
Ideal conditions for Coral Reefs
- Corals need to grow in shallow water where sunlight can reach them.
- Corals rarely develop in water deeper than 165 feet (50 meters).
- Clear water
- Corals need clear water that lets sunlight through; they don’t thrive well when the water is opaque.
- Sediment and plankton can cloud water, which decreases the amount of sunlight that reaches the zooxanthellae.
- Warm water temperature:
- Corals generally live in water temperatures of 20–32° C.
- Clean water
- Corals are sensitive to pollution and sediments.
- Sediment can create cloudy water and be deposited on corals, blocking out the sun and harming the polyps.
- Corals need saltwater to survive and require a certain balance in the ratio of salt to water.
- This is why corals don’t live in areas where rivers drain fresh water into the ocean (“estuaries”).
Threats to Coral Reefs:
Coral reefs are being degraded by an accumulation of stresses arising from anthropogenic activities and changes in the natural environment.
- Over-fishing of certain species on or adjacent to coral reefs can affect the reef’s ecological balance and biodiversity.
- Destructive fishing methods
- Fishing with dynamite, cyanide and other damaging methods can damage entire reefs and is 100% unsustainable.
- Recreational activities
- Physical damage to the coral reefs can occur through contact from careless swimmers, divers, and poorly placed boat anchors.
- Coastal development
- Sensitive habitats can be destroyed or disturbed by the dredging of deep-water channels or marinas, and through the dumping of waste materials.
- Coral reefs need clean water to thrive. From litter to waste oil, pollution is damaging reefs worldwide.
- Pollution alters the natural flow of water, greater amounts of fresh water, nutrients and sediment can reach the reefs causing further degradation.
- Nutrient-rich water causes phytoplankton to thrive in coastal areas, often causing algal blooms.
- It also encourages the growth of algae, which compete with corals for space on the reef.
- Plastic pollution
- 8 million tones of plastic rubbish enters the world’s oceans every single year.
- Many discarded plastic is broken down into what is known as microplastics, tiny pieces that are mistaken by coral polyps as food and ingested.
- After years of campaigning, many countries are now changing policy; banning plastic bags, straws and single-use plastic packaging.