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Title: Assessing the potential for demographic restoration and assisted evolution to build climate resilience in coral reefs

Interest is growing in developing conservation strategies to restore and maintain coral reef ecosystems in the face of mounting anthropogenic stressors, particularly climate warming and associated mass bleaching events. One such approach is to propagate coral coloniesex situand transplant them to degraded reef areas to augment habitat for reef‐dependent fauna, prevent colonization from spatial competitors, and enhance coral reproductive output. In addition to such “demographic restoration” efforts, manipulating the thermal tolerance of outplanted colonies through assisted relocation, selective breeding, or genetic engineering is being considered for enhancing rates of evolutionary adaptation to warming. Although research into such “assisted evolution” strategies has been growing, their expected performance remains unclear. We evaluated the potential outcomes of demographic restoration and assisted evolution in climate change scenarios using an eco‐evolutionary simulation model. We found that supplementing reefs with pre‐existing genotypes (demographic restoration) offers little climate resilience benefits unless input levels are large and maintained for centuries. Supplementation with thermally resistant colonies was successful at improving coral cover at lower input levels, but only if maintained for at least a century. Overall, we found that, although demographic restoration and assisted evolution have the potential to improve long‐term coral cover, both approaches had a limited impact in preventing severe declines under climate change scenarios. Conversely, with sufficient natural genetic variance and time, corals could readily adapt to warming temperatures, suggesting that restoration approaches focused on building genetic variance may outperform those based solely on introducing heat‐tolerant genotypes.

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Ecological Society America
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Journal Name:
Ecological Applications
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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