When coral species vanish, their absence can imperil surviving corals

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BBC’s Science Daily reported on a study by the Georgia Institute of Technology that shows that coral species do better in groups and not in isolated species. The article mentions Pacific and Caribbean reefs. The summary reads, “As coral species die off, they may be leaving a death spiral in their wake: Their absence could be sapping life from the corals that survive. In a new study, when isolated from other species, corals got weak, died off or grew in fragile structures. The study has shown it is possible to quantify positive effects of coral biodiversity and negative effects of its absence.” Here are excerpts:

Waves of annihilation have beaten coral reefs down to a fraction of what they were 40 years ago, and what’s left may be facing creeping death: The effective extinction of many coral species may be weakening reef systems thus siphoning life out of the corals that remain.

In the shallows off Fiji’s Pacific shores, two marine researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology for a new study assembled groups of corals that were all of the same species, i.e. groups without species diversity. When Cody Clements snorkeled down for the first time to check on them, his eyes instantly told him what his data would later reveal.

“One of the species had entire plots that got wiped out, and they were overgrown with algae,” Clements said. “Rows of corals had tissue that was brown — that was dead tissue. Other tissue had turned white and was in the process of dying.”

36 ghastly plots

Clements, a postdoctoral researcher and the study’s first author, also assembled groups of corals with a mixture of species, i.e. biodiverse groups, for comparison. In total, there were 36 single-species plots, or monocultures. Twelve additional plots contained polycultures that mixed three species.

By the end of the 16-month experiment, monocultures had faired obviously worse. And the study had shown via the measurably healthier growth in polycultures that science can begin to quantify biodiversity’s contribution to coral survival as well as the effects of biodiversity’s disappearance.

“This was a starter experiment to see if we would get an initial result, and we did,” said principal investigator Mary Hay, a Regents Professor and Harry and Linda Teasley Chair in Georgia Tech’s School of Biological Sciences. “So much reef death over the years has reduced coral species variety and made reefs more homogenous, but science still doesn’t understand enough about how coral biodiversity helps reefs survive. We want to know more.”

The results of the study appear in the February issue of the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution and were made available online on January 7, 2018. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, by the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, and by the Teasley Endowment. The study’s insights could aid ecologists restocking crumbling reefs with corals — which are animals. Past replenishing efforts have often deployed patches of single species that have had trouble taking hold, and the researchers believe the study should encourage replanting using biodiverse patches.

40 years’ decimation

The decimation of corals Hay has witnessed in over four decades of undersea research underscores this study’s importance.

“It’s shocking how quickly the Caribbean reefs crashed. In the 1970s and early 1980s, reefs consisted of about 60 percent live coral cover,” Hay said. “Coral cover declined dramatically through the 1990s and has remained low. It’s now at about 10 percent throughout the Caribbean.”

“You used to find living diverse reefs with structurally complex coral stands the size of city blocks. Now, most Caribbean reefs look more like parking lots with a few sparse corals scattered around.” [. . .]

10 times more species

Still, there’s hope. Pacific reefs support ten times as many coral species as Caribbean reefs, and Clements’ and Hay’s new study suggests that this higher biodiversity may help make these reefs more robust than the Caribbean reefs. There, many species have joined the endangered list, or are “functionally extinct,” still present but in traces too small to have ecological impact.

The Caribbean’s coral collapse may have been a warning shot on the dangers of species loss. Some coral species protect others from getting eaten or infected, for example. “A handful of species may be critical for the survival of many others, and we don’t yet know well enough which are most critical. If key species disappear, the consequences could be enormous,” said Hay, who believes he may have already witnessed this in the Caribbean. “The decline of key species may drive the decline of others and potentially create a death spiral.” [. . .]

[Photo above by Cody Clements, Georgia Tech.]

For full article, see https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190123153519.htm

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