Why are some corals flourishing in a time of global warming?

Sep. 10, 2013 — As Earth’s temperature climbs, the stony corals that form the backbone of ocean reefs are in decline.It’s a well-documented story: Violent storms and coral bleaching have all contributed to dwindling populations, and increasing acidity of seawater threatens to take an additional toll.Less discussed, however, is the plight of gorgonian corals — softer, flexible, tree-like species that can rise up like an underwater forest, providing a canopy beneath which small fish and aquatic life of all kinds can thrive.Divers have noted in recent years that gorgonian corals seem to be proliferating in certain areas of the Caribbean, even as their stony counterparts struggle. Now, a new study will look to quantify this phenomenon.Scientists from the California State University, Northridge and University at Buffalo will examine 27 years of photographs from reefs off the Caribbean island of St. John to determine how gorgonian numbers have changed, and run field experiments to see how competition with stony corals — or a lack of it — influences gorgonian growth.The study will also document what gorgonian coral populations look like now at St. John, which is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and track future development there.Understanding coral reefs is important as they are one of the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems.”When you look at these gorgonian corals, it seems that they’re increasing in abundance, and that’s an anecdotal observation that many people have made,” said UB geology professor Howard Lasker, one of three investigators heading the project. “Does this mean that as stony corals continue to decline, we’re going to see reefs transforming into these gorgonian coral-dominated communities? That’s what we’re trying to find out.””With climate change and ocean acidification, there certainly is a realistic possibility that coral reefs as we know them could pretty much disappear,” said Cal State Northridge biology professor Peter Edmunds, another principal investigator. “The question is, what will coral reefs look like in the future?”The nearly $1 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), started officially on Sept. 1.It brings together a powerful team. …

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