Science 3 min read

How "Supercorals" Could Save Our Tropical Seas

Coral colonies threatened by rising water temperatures and acidity may not be lost forever as marine biologists discover climate-resilient coral species they dub them “supercorals”.

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Corals could get mistaken for plants because they take roots to the seafloor, and for rocks because of their hard shell, but they’re neither. They’re in fact discrete animals living quietly deep under water, and whose benefits extend to many sea creatures living in and around the reef system.

Take the Great Barrier Reef that spans over 1,600 miles off of the coast of Queensland in Australia, covering an area that’s about 133,000 square miles. This huge marine ecosystem is home to countless aquatic species that form an amazingly diverse biosphere completely reliant on the health of the reef.

On land, near the coral reef systems, the local economy can draw billions of dollars from commercial fisheries and tourism activities, like diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, and restaurants.

But corals around the world are endangered, threatened by extinction due to climate change.

Greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere as byproducts of our civilization-sustaining activities act as a warming blanket over the planet. But this is just beginning. These gases will rain down on Earth to raise the acidity of waters.

One of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet that’s also one of the most exposed to the rising temperatures and acidity of the ocean are coral reef systems.

Supercorals: Climate-Resilient Corals

As the water gets too warm, healthy corals expel the algae living symbiotically in their system as a measure of defense, which results in corals turning white, called coral bleaching.

Half of the U.S. Caribbean coral reefs died in a single year (2005) due to global warming-induced bleaching.

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was hit hard in 2016 and 2017 by a massive bleaching event that they may never be able to recover from.

But apparently, not all corals are equal when it comes to their resistance to extreme weather.

Biologists have discovered corals in Kāne’ohe Bay in Hawaii that tolerate warm temperatures and acidic waters to the extent that earned them the name of supercorals.

These supercorals were found in 2014 by Megan Morikawa and Stephen Palumbi, co-authors of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers were intrigued to see whether these corals that developed climate-resilience in one place would lose their heat-tolerance in another site. So they collected 800 coral sample from 80 colonies of four species and transplanted them in sites that were damaged by a hurricane.

And if that wasn’t enough, the site was hit months later by an extreme El Nino event, providing the perfect conditions to test supercorals. But the corals that previously thrived on high temperature and acidity survived the El Nino-induced bleaching better than local species.

“We won’t save every coral or every reef — many are already gone — but neither is it inevitable that we are going to lose all of them,” said Christopher Jury who led the new research. “If we seriously reduce the rate of climate change and the intensity of local stressors, we can still give the survivors a chance.”

However, as researchers point out, if the climate change scenario continues as is, even these supercorals won’t survive.

Read More: Undersea Robot To Rescue The Great Barrier Reef

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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