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Title: Corals survive severe bleaching event in refuges related to taxa, colony size, and water depth

Marine heatwaves are increasing in frequency and duration, threatening tropical reef ecosystems through intensified coral bleaching events. We examined a strikingly variable spatial pattern of bleaching in Moorea, French Polynesia following a heatwave that lasted from November 2018 to July 2019. In July 2019, four months after the onset of bleaching, we surveyed > 5000 individual colonies of the two dominant coral genera,PocilloporaandAcropora, at 10 m and 17 m water depths, at six forereef sites around the island where temperature was measured. We found severe bleaching increased with colony size for both coral genera, butAcroporableached more severely thanPocilloporaoverall. Acroporableached more at 10 m than 17 m, likely due to higher light availability at 10 m compared to 17 m, or greater daily temperature fluctuation at depth. Bleaching inPocilloporacorals did not differ with depth but instead varied with the interaction of colony size and Accumulated Heat Stress (AHS), in that larger colonies (> 30 cm) were more sensitive to AHS than mid-size (10–29 cm) or small colonies (5–9 cm). Our findings provide insight into complex interactions among coral taxa, colony size, and water depth that produce high spatial variation in bleaching and related coral mortality.

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Publisher / Repository:
Nature Publishing Group
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Journal Name:
Scientific Reports
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract

    Variation among functionally similar species in their response to environmental stress buffers ecosystems from changing states. Functionally similar species may often be cryptic species representing evolutionarily distinct genetic lineages that are morphologically indistinguishable. However, the extent to which cryptic species differ in their response to stress, and could therefore provide a source of response diversity, remains unclear because they are often not identified or are assumed to be ecologically equivalent. Here, we uncover differences in the bleaching response between sympatric cryptic species of the common Indo‐Pacific coral,Pocillopora. In April 2019, prolonged ocean heating occurred at Moorea, French Polynesia. 72% of pocilloporid colonies bleached after 22 d of severe heating (>8oC‐days) at 10 m depth on the north shore fore reef. Colony mortality ranged from 11% to 42% around the island four months after heating subsided. The majority (86%) of pocilloporids that died from bleaching belonged to a single haplotype, despite twelve haplotypes, representing at least five species, being sampled. Mitochondrial (open reading frame) sequence variation was greater between the haplotypes that experienced mortality versus haplotypes that all survived than it was between nominal species that all survived. Colonies > 30 cm in diameter were identified as the haplotype experiencing the most mortality, and in 1125 colonies that were not genetically identified, bleaching and mortality increased with colony size. Mortality did not increase with colony size within the haplotype suffering the highest mortality, suggesting that size‐dependent bleaching and mortality at the genus level was caused instead by differences among cryptic species. The relative abundance of haplotypes shifted between February and August, driven by declines in the same common haplotype for which mortality was estimated directly, at sites where heat accumulation was greatest, and where larger colony sizes occurred. The identification of morphologically indistinguishable species that differ in their response to thermal stress, but share a similar ecological function in terms of maintaining a coral‐dominated state, has important consequences for uncovering response diversity that drives resilience, especially in systems with low or declining functional diversity.

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  3. Abstract

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    A freePlain Language Summarycan be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

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