Researchers have raised hopes that limited coral survival may be possible, allowing one of the world’s best-known reefs to survive a little longer.

Although corals are highly sensitive to ocean warming, and notoriously bleach when temperatures exceed a certain limit, a new study has shown that at least one coral can evolve tolerance to excessive temperatures.

The implication is that even though other teams have repeatedly warned that the world’s reefs are in peril as the world warms because of ever-greater ratios of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as a consequence of human combustion of fossil fuels at a profligate rate, the world’s great reefs may survive for perhaps another century, rather than perish within the next 50 years.

“It means these corals will still go extinct if we do nothing,” said Misha Matz, of the University of Texas at Austin, who led the study. “But it also means we have a chance to save them. It buys us time to actually do something about global warming, which is the main problem.”

The argument is based on Darwinian logic: coral colonies produce colossal numbers of larvae each year, set adrift on ocean currents to colonise new reefs. As conditions change, those corals that by an accident of genetic inheritance have the traits needed to cope with environmental challenge will get a foothold, and flourish. Those that don’t will fade out. Natural selection will respond.

And this is hopeful news, if only because the world’s reefs are under threat as never before. Bleaching – the response to heat in which coral rejects the algae with which it normally lives in symbiosis – has always happened: research earlier this year suggests it could become five times more frequent, and reefs such as Australia’s Great Barrier would have no time to recover.

Some reefs have already been pronounced too damaged ever to be restored. This is bad news not just for the coral animals: the tropical reefs are just about the richest habitats on the planet, and of profound economic importance to humans too.

A partnership of US and Australian scientists reports in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Genetics that computer simulation models and genetic evidence of variation from one species of staghorn coral, called Acropora millepora, together show that the coral could in theory adapt over a stretch of 20 to 50 generations.

“This genetic variation is like fuel for natural selection,” Dr Matz said. “If there is enough of it, evolution can be remarkably fast, because all it needs to do is reshuffle the existing variants between the populations.

“It doesn’t have to wait for a new mutation to appear; it’s already there. The problem is, when the genetic variation is exhausted, it is over and the future is unclear.”

Tentative conclusions

There are problems with such studies. This one is based on genetic evidence from one species of coral. But the 2,300 km Great Barrier Reef of Australia is home to at least 411 species of hard coral. It is based on a mathematical model, not on observed change in the reefs.

And global warming is not the only challenge to coral reefs, which are also threatened by human exploitation, pollution and increasing acidification  of the surrounding seas, again as a consequence of ever higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“Corals live in a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, which are plant-like cells hosted in surface tissues that provide up to 90% of the energy to the colony,” said Stephen Simpson, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter in the UK, commenting on the study.

“Whether there is also sufficient genotypic variation in the zooxanthellae to tolerate further warming remains to be seen. While the fact that one species may do well is good news, there are many other reef organisms that may fare far worse, so it is easy to envisage a future with a few winners but many losers, threatening the functional integrity of reef ecosystems.”

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