Coral reefs could survive global warming, says study

The News

  • A study of the past using genetic evidence has revealed that coral reefs have survived the effects of climate change in the past.

Key Highlights

  • 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.

Key Findings

  • Diversity
    • 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.
  • Older
    • 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).

Genetic Evidence

  • 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

  • Sunlight
    • 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.
  • Saltwater
    • 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
    • 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.
  • Pollution
    • 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.

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