Saturday, 4 July 2015

Corals; Adapting to Change

 Coral is a remarkable animal. Creators of some of the biggest and most valuable natural structures on Earth, they shape the environment around them to suit their needs, developing complex structures and harnessing support of algae to maximise their output.

Diving on a coral reef is an experience quite unlike any other. The variety of life surrounding you is truly astonishing, with as many as 3,000 different marine species living on one reef. Many of these species are cryptic, masters of disguise whilst others are brightly coloured to ward off predators. Whilst many divers visit the reef to witness these more cryptic or colourful fish, the corals themselves provide an opportunity to be rightly amazed. The variety of shapes, sizes and colours of just Genus is enough to confuse even the dedicated spotters, but their beauty lies in their complexity and simplicity combined. Within their structures live tiny polyps, little more than small stinging tentacles connected to a mouth and stomach.

It is fantastic to think that such tiny, simple creatures have created structures such as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and are the foundations for the Coral Triangle, an ecosystem that is home to over 2,000 fish species as well as six out of the seven Sea Turtle species and upon which over 120 million people rely on in their daily lives.

Of course, as a race, we have over-exploited our oceans and planet to such an extent that corals are in constant threat of destruction and harm. From fish bombing in the Philippines and Malaysia to tourism and pollution in the Caribbean and South America and even climate change in our atmosphere, corals are in danger of harm from all angles, and that isn’t even mentioning the constant battles they face against each other on the reef!

Corals however, are not just going to roll over and give up. Once again, they continue to amaze and have begun to show remarkable signs of recovery and resilience against our many actions. Already in 2013, NOAA released a study that commented at present levels of CO2, Corals have the potential to evolve and adapt genetically to warming temperatures, potentially allowing longer survival until 2100. Of course, not all species are expected to make the necessary adaptations, and Darwin’s survival of the fittest will again be prominent, but that some corals may adapt is fantastic news.

More recently (this month!) NewScientist release an article stating that not only are some species able to adapt to warming temperatures, they are able to pass this trait genetically to their offspring, showing relatively rapid evolution in the face of threat and change. There is even evidence to suggest that by choosing the right algae (Zooxanthellae), adult corals can increase their heat resistance by 1.5degrees! They also found evidence that some corals in Palau, living in acidic waters have also shown no signs of detrimental change, though they are yet to identify the reason for this.

We, as a race, continue to bombard our environment with plastic, pollution, oil whilst simultaneously over-exploiting and over-extracting. Yet nature will continue to fight back, we may destroy 90% of it, but at some point, we will fall, balanced so precariously on a knife edge, and destroy ourselves in the process.

The evidence is building that coral is more resilient than we first thought which is awesome. Coral and nature, is amazingly fantastic, showing signs of evolution even in our short time on this Earth. It is wondrous and beautiful and we need just to open our eyes and marvel at it and maybe, just maybe, our actions would change, for the better.