Monday, April 16, 2012

Climate experience makes some corals more resistant to heat stress

Preserving coral reefs, and everything they provide to communities across the tropics, on a warming planet will require identifying what might make a coral less susceptible to heat stress.

One of the big questions being studied by a number of scientists in the community is whether past temperature experience can make individual corals (by individual acclimation or adaptation) or coral communities (by selecting for tougher species) more resistant or more resilient to heat stress. I've been leading field projects in the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati, where this whimsical coral can be found, because the unique El Nino-driven climate provides a great natural laboratory for studying that big question.

In the lastest publication on this research, my colleagues Jessica Carilli (the lead author), Aaron Hartmann and I describe how massive corals on the atolls which naturally experience more frequent heat stress appear to have been more resistant to the recent El Nino-driven ocean heat waves. For an accessible summary of our findings, I recommend listening to this past weekend's episode of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks. But you can also read the paper itself: the journal PLoS-One is online and open access to all.

The research involved drilling coral cores, Jess Carilli's area of expertise, from sites around three different atolls, followed by some exhaustive lab analysis by my colleagues. The logistics of collecting the samples from the outer islands was unbelievably complicated, even for someone who knows the challenges of working in a remote island country. Just getting all the gear to Butaritari (that's the seat beside my flip-seat on the plane), making it all work and bringing the samples back intact will probably go down as our greatest accomplishment in science. We owe a huge thanks to local colleagues Aranteiti Tekiau, Toaea Beiateuea, Iobi Arabua and the late Moiwa Erutarem, who sadly was lost at sea six months after our expedition.

In the month of May, I'll be fundraising for the in-country expenses of a planned, future expedition through the second Scifund crowd-sourcing science funding campaign. By sheer coincidence I will actually be in Kiribati during some coral monitoring during most of the Scifund campaign. I'll try to put trip updates on Maribo whenever I find internet access.

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