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Scientists search for corals with higher temperature thresholds

Published: Thursday, March 22, 2012

Coral bleaching -- a phenomenon brought on by rising temperatures and ocean acidification that has already devastated many of the world's largest reefs -- is often cited as a first-stage effect of climate change, a canary in the coal mine of global warming.

Yet not all corals are threatened equally by warmer waters. Some species appear to be surviving -- and even thriving -- in regions where climate change has raised the ocean's temperature in recent decades. Scientists studying the phenomenon say these corals may hold a clue to protecting other, more vulnerable species.

"Our research tries to find the corals that are better at resisting the negative effects of high temperature and find out at the molecular genetic level how they accomplish this," said Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University, who, along with other researchers, is studying heat-resistant corals in controlled environments.

The scientists' project will soon begin on Ofu Island in American Samoa; from there, they will travel to Rarotonga and Aitutaki in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific.

By placing certain coral species in a computer-controlled aquarium, researchers can closely monitor their reactions to incremental temperature increases, establishing thresholds for growth success and failure.

"We do not know if the strong corals we find tomorrow will be dead the next day," Palumbi said. "But if we do not find them, we will never know where to protect them."

Coral bleaching occurs when a coral, stressed by temperature or changing water chemistry, expels a symbiotic algae from within its tissues. The algae helps the coral photosynthesize, and without it, the coral eventually dies.

Coral reefs are a matter of major concern for scientists and mariners because they shelter more varieties of life than any other marine ecosystem. They also form a buffer for many coastlines against ocean currents and tidal activity and have been a source of medicinal substances in the past (MSNBC, March
20). -- NM

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500


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Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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