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For corals adjusting to climate change, it's survival of fattest and most flexible

July 9, 2014–The future health of the world’s coral reefs and the animals that depend on them relies in part on the ability of one tiny symbiotic sea creature to get fat — and to be flexible about the type of algae with which it cooperates.

In the first study of its kind, scientists at the University of Delaware and Ohio State University discovered that corals — tiny reef-forming animals that live symbiotically with algae — are better able to recover from yearly bouts of heat stress, called “bleaching,” when they keep large energy reserves — mostly as fat — socked away in their cells.

“The response of coral reef ecosystems to global climate change is of significant concern to those of us who study the ocean,” according to Mark Warner, a professor in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE). “When ocean waters warm, corals get stressed and release their symbiotic algae, making them turn white, or bleach. Our research showed that some coral species rebound after annual bleaching events, but others get progressively more susceptible.”

“We concluded that annual coral bleaching could cause a decline in coral diversity, and an overall decline of coral reefs worldwide, ” said Andréa Grottoli, professor in the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State and co-author of the paper.

The study, which appears in the July 9 online edition of Global Change Biology, indicates that some coral species will almost certainly decline with global climate change, while others that exhibit large fat storage and flexibility in the types of algae they partner with will stand a better chance of enduring repeated rounds of stress as oceans get hotter.

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