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Thermally tolerant corals have limited capacity to acclimatize to future warming

March 18, 2014

MedSeA 150

Thermal stress affects organism performance differently depending on the ambient temperature to which they are acclimatized, which varies along latitudinal gradients. This study investigated whether differences in physiological responses to temperature are consistent with regional differences in temperature regimes for the stony coral Oculina patagonica. To resolve this question we experimentally assessed how colonies originating from four different locations characterized by >3°C variation in mean maximum annual temperature responded to warming from 20 to 32°C. We assessed plasticity in symbiont identity, density, and photosynthetic properties, together with changes in host tissue biomass. Results show that, without changes in the type of symbiont hosted by coral colonies, O. patagonica has limited capacity to acclimatize to future warming. We found little evidence of variation in overall thermal tolerance, or in thermal optima, in response to spatial variation in ambient temperature. Given that the invader O. patagonica is a relatively new member of the Mediterranean coral fauna our results also suggest that coral populations may need to remain isolated for a long period of time for thermal adaptation to potentially take place. Our study indicates that for O. patagonica, mortality associated with thermal stress manifests primarily through tissue breakdown under moderate but prolonged warming (which does not impair symbiont photosynthesis and, therefore, does not lead to bleaching). Consequently, projected global warming is likely to causes repeat incidents of partial and whole colony mortality and might drive a gradual range contraction of Mediterranean corals.

  • Rodolfo-Metalpa R,
  •  Hoogenboom MO, 
  •  Rottier C,
  •  Ramos-Esplá A
  •  Baker A,
  •  Fine M,
  •  Ferrier-Pagès C, in press: Thermally tolerant corals have limited capacity to acclimatize to future warming, Global Change Biology, doi:10.1111/gcb.12571, Article.
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