Coral adaptation in the face of climate change – Baird & Maynard

cover.gifIn their Review, “Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification” (14 December 2007, p. 1737), O. Hoegh-Guldberg et al. present future reef scenarios that range from coral-dominated communities to rapidly eroding rubble banks. Notably, none of their scenarios considers the capacity for corals to adapt. The authors dismiss adaptation because “[r]eef-building corals have relatively long generation times and low genetic diversity, making for slow rates of adaptation [relative to rates of change].” We think the possibility of adaptation deserves a second look.
Many features of coral life histories, such as extended life spans, delayed maturation, and colony fission, do result in long generation times (1) [some between 33 and 37 years (2)]. However, other corals, such as many species of Acropora and Pocillopora, mature early, grow rapidly, and suffer whole-colony mortality, as opposed to colony fission, after mechanical disturbances (3) and thermal stress (4). The life histories of these ecologically important and abundant species suggest an underappreciated capacity to adapt rapidly to changing environments.

Repeated bleaching episodes in the same coral assemblages and the increasing scale and frequency of coral bleaching have been cited as evidence that corals have exhausted their genetic capacity to adapt to rising sea surface temperatures (5). However, comparisons of the rates of mortality within populations among bleaching events are not available. Without these data, it is not possible to assess whether the adaptive response has been exhausted. Indeed, the effects of temperature and acidification on even the most basic vital rates in corals, such as growth, mortality, and fecundity, are largely unknown, as are the physiological trade-offs among these traits. Consequently, the sensitivity of population growth to climate-induced changes in vital rates remains almost completely unexplored [but see (6)]. In the absence of long-term demographic studies to detect temporal trends in life history traits, predicting rates of adaptation, and whether they will be exceeded by rates of environmental change, is pure speculation. Indeed, where such data are available for terrestrial organisms they demonstrate that contemporary evolution in response to climate change is possible (7).

Andrew Baird
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University
Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia

Jeffrey A. Maynard
Centre of Excellence for Environmental Risk Analysis
University of Melbourne
Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia


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J. S. Madin, S. R. Connolly, Nature 444, 477 (2006).
A. H. Baird, P. A. Marshall, Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 237, 133 (2002).
O. Hoegh-Guldberg, Mar. Freshwater Res. 50, 839 (1999).
M. Wakeford, T. J. Done, C. R. Johnson, Coral Reefs 27, 1 (2008).
D. K. Skelly et al., Conserv. Biol. 21, 1353 (2007).

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