It's no secret that the world's coral reefs are rapidly declining, taking the one-two punch that is warming temperatures and mounting ocean acidification. However, there is hope, and it's coming straight from an unknown member of the natural world. Researchers have just discovered a new species of algae, and it's one that seems to be able to help corals survive otherwise deadly temperatures.
That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, which details how a previously unknown species of algae (Symbiodinium thermophilum) found in the waters of Abu Dhabi, of the United Arab Emirates, is what likely facilitates what is the warmest known coral reef habitat.
Traditionally, overly warm water isn't good for corals. It stresses the organisms and can kill their symbiotic algal partners, making reproduction and reef-building difficult even as they become more vulnerable to infection.
Past research has found that some smaller coral species appear to be winning the war against climate change - at least for now - as they can withstand warmer waters and maintain isolated communities. But even these corals don't come close to what the corals in Abu Dhabi are pulling off. They can somehow withstand temperatures of up to 36 degrees Celsius (97 Fahrenheit), which would normally prove fatal for coral anywhere else in the world.
So how are these corals pulling off this incredible feat? Simply put, because S. thermophilum can take the heat. (Scroll to read on...)
"We monitored the symbiotic partnership over several seasons to ensure that this association was stable through a range of thermal conditions," researcher John Burt, from the New York University in Abu Dhabi, explained in a statement.
He and his colleagues found that as long as the algae persevered, the coral did not bleach, and by not bleaching, they were able to avoid the more fatal effects of warming temperatures.
"We can confirm that this new type of alga is indeed the year-round prevalent symbiont across several dominant coral species from the Abu Dhabi coast of the United Arab Emirates," Burt added.
The researchers found that S. thermophilum can pull off a unique heat resistance at a molecular level, even while maintaining processes like calcification that are essential to coral health.
"It gives hope to find that corals have more ways to adjust to stressful environmental conditions than we had previously thought. However, it is not only heat that troubles coral reefs," warned Jörg Wiedenmann, head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at the University of Southampton. "Pollution and nutrient enrichment, overfishing and coastal development also represent severe threats to their survival. Only if we manage to reduce these different forms of stress will corals be able to benefit from their capacity to adjust to climate change."
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