Generally, scientists have found that ecosystems with more diverse foundation species — those that define a system and are inseparable from it , such as trees in a forest — tend to be healthier and function better. Until recently, no one had applied this test to coral reefs. But we do know that healthy coral reefs are diverse, structurally complex ecosystems dominated by corals. In contrast, reefs that have been damaged by stresses such as coral bleaching events tend to become simplified, less diverse landscapes, often dominated by seaweeds.
Many reefs along this coast have been heavily degraded by overfishing and other human-related activities, reducing coral cover and allowing seaweeds to dominate. There are hundreds of coral species across the Pacific, but at smaller scales, we found just five species or fewer during preliminary surveys conducted on the degraded reef at our site.
Why are coral reefs in peril and what is being done to protect them?
Our team created 48 concrete plots on the seafloor of the degraded reef, which served as the bases for experimental coral gardens. We created single-species gardens that each contained one of three coral species — Pocillopora damicornis , commonly known as cauliflower coral; Porites cylindrica , also known as yellow finger coral; and Acropora millepora , one of a number species known as staghorn corals. We also planted mixed gardens containing all three species. We chose these corals because they are common to reefs across the Pacific and are representative of different coral families that have shown varying responses to a variety of harmful disturbances.
The world of coral reefs
In all, each garden contained 18 coral individuals, for a total of corals. So we cut off the tops of hundreds of soda bottles and planted an individual coral in the upside-down neck of each bottle with epoxy putty.
We embedded the bottle caps into our concrete slabs so that we could easily unscrew each bottle neck to examine the coral it held, then screw it back into its base. Over 16 months we weighed the corals and tracked other measures of their well-being, including tissue death and colonization of each garden by harmful seaweeds.
We consistently found that corals grown in mixed-species gardens performed better than those in single-species plots.
Within four months, coral growth in the mixed-species gardens was even exceeding the best-performing single-species gardens. The next question is what drove the effects that we observed. We hope to investigate a number of leads in future experiments. For example, farmers commonly observe that planting a diverse mix of crops helps to reduce the spread of infectious diseases among individuals. Could the same be true for coral reefs?
Our initial findings offer both concern and hope for the future of coral reefs.
Biodiversity helps coral reefs thrive – and could be part of strategies to save them
If diversity is integral to coral well-being, then continued species loss could dramatically alter these ecosystems in ways that lead to further reef decline. That said, many of the strategies in the National Academies report involve using biodiversity — both at the genetic and species level — to enhance coral reef resilience.
Examples include cross-breeding corals between populations; altering coral genes to give them new functions, such as higher heat tolerance; and moving stress-tolerant corals or coral genes to new locations. Promising advances in technology, such as mapping coral reefs from the air , may also help researchers assess coral health and determine which species they contain. This baseline information may help better inform management and restoration efforts.
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Perhaps harnessing the power of their remaining biodiversity can help give them a fighting chance. Okinawan art in its regional context — Norwich, Norfolk. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. Protect Surviving Reefs In "Cool Spots": Almost 20 percent of the coral communities studied had managed to withstand the years-long marine heatwave and maintain their intricate structures because they were situated within so-called "cool spots" should be protected and actively managed through an international coral reef conservation network.
Recover Recently Bleached Reefs: Over half of the reefs studied had been recently bleached by the prolonged marine heatwave and were still capable of returning to their former state. Transform How Coral Reef-Based Societies Function: Approximately 28 percent of reefs that were centerpieces in coastal livelihoods were no longer functioning in a way that could support local coastal communities. In addition to the key strategies, this study helped identify some conditions that may help preserve the portions of reefs that continued to function after the warming event.
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For example, the presence of reef-building "framework" corals which occur where ocean conditions are more stable allow reefs longer windows in which to recover after any extreme events. Additionally, corals found further away from coastal populations also occurred in higher abundances. The proposed conservation framework Protect, Recover, Transform is intended to secure coral reefs and the ecosystem services that they provide.
This approach intends to couple both regional and global coral reef conservation efforts. According to Dr.