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MEPS 648:135-151 (2020)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13402

Highly variable taxa-specific coral bleaching responses to thermal stresses

Timothy R. McClanahan1,*, Emily S. Darling1,2, Joseph M. Maina3, Nyawira A. Muthiga1, Stephanie D’agata1,3, Julien Leblond1, Rohan Arthur4,5, Stacy D. Jupiter1,6, Shaun K. Wilson7,8, Sangeeta Mangubhai1,6, Ali M. Ussi9, Mireille M. M. Guillaume10,11, Austin T. Humphries12,13, Vardhan Patankar14,15, George Shedrawi16,17, Julius Pagu18, Gabriel Grimsditch19

1Wildlife Conservation Society, Marine Program, Bronx, NY 10460, USA
2Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3B2, Canada
3Faculty of Science and Engineering, Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia
4Nature Conservation Foundation, Amritha 1311, 12th Main, Vijaynagar 1st Stage Mysore 570017, India
5Center for Advanced Studies (CEAB), C. d’Acces Cala Sant Francesc, 14, 17300 Blanes, Spain
6Wildlife Conservation Society, Melanesia Program, 11 Ma’afu Street, Suva, Fiji
7Marine Science Program, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Kensington, WA 6101, Australia
8Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia
9Department of Natural Sciences, The State University of Zanzibar, Zanzibar, Tanzania
10Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Aviv, Laboratoire BOREA MNHN-SU-UCN-UA-CNRS-IRD EcoFunc, 75005 Paris, France
11Laboratoire d’Excellence CORAIL, 66860 Perpignan, France
12Department of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02881, USA
13Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Narragansett, RI 02882, USA
14Wildlife Conservation Society, 551, 7th Main Road, Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, 2nd Phase, Kodigehalli, Bengaluru - 560 097, Karnataka, India
15Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, National Centre for Biological Sciences, GKVK Campus, Bangalore 560 065, India
16School of Molecular and Life Sciences, Bentley Campus, Curtin University, Perth, WA 6485, Australia
17Pacific Community, Division of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems, SPC - B.P. D5 - 98848 Noumea, New Caledonia
18Mafia Island Marine Park, PO Box 74, Tanzania
19IUCN Maldives, Merryrose Building 2nd Floor, Filigas Magu, 20006 Malé, Maldives
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Complex histories of chronic and acute sea surface temperature (SST) stresses are expected to trigger taxon- and location-specific responses that will ultimately lead to novel coral communities. The 2016 El Niño-Southern Oscillation provided an opportunity to examine large-scale and recent environmental histories on emerging patterns in 226 coral communities distributed across 12 countries from East Africa to Fiji. Six main coral communities were identified that largely varied across a gradient of Acropora to massive Porites dominance. Bleaching intensity was taxon-specific and was associated with complex interactions among the 20 environmental variables that we examined. Coral community structure was better aligned with the historical temperature patterns between 1985 and 2015 than the 2016 extreme temperature event. Additionally, bleaching responses observed during 2016 differed from historical reports during past warm years. Consequently, coral communities present in 2016 are likely to have been reorganized by both long-term community change and acclimation mechanisms. For example, less disturbed sites with cooler baseline temperatures, higher mean historical SST background variability, and infrequent extreme warm temperature stresses were associated with Acropora-dominated communities, while more disturbed sites with lower historical SST background variability and frequent acute warm stress were dominated by stress-resistant massive Porites corals. Overall, the combination of taxon-specific responses, community-level reorganization over time, geographic variation, and multiple environmental stressors suggest complex responses and a diversity of future coral communities that can help contextualize management priorities and activities.


KEY WORDS: Adaptation · Acclimation · Climate change · Community structure · Geography · Stress responses


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Cite this article as: McClanahan TR, Darling ES, Maina JM, Muthiga NA and others (2020) Highly variable taxa-specific coral bleaching responses to thermal stresses. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 648:135-151. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13402

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