, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 1-17

Coral reef bleaching: ecological perspectives

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Abstract

Coral reef bleaching, the whitening of diverse invertebrate taxa, results from the loss of symbiotic zooxanthellae and/or a reduction in photosynthetic pigment concentrations in zooxanthellae residing within the gastrodermal tissues of host animals. Of particular concern are the consequences of bleaching of large numbers of reef-building scleractinian corals and hydrocorals. Published records of coral reef bleaching events from 1870 to the present suggest that the frequency (60 major events from 1979 to 1990), scale (co-occurrence in many coral reef regions and often over the bathymetric depth range of corals) and severity (>95% mortality in some areas) of recent bleaching disturbances are unprecedented in the scientific literature. The causes of small scale, isolated bleaching events can often be explained by particular stressors (e.g., temperature, salinity, light, sedimentation, aerial exposure and pollutants), but attempts to explain large scale bleaching events in terms of possible global change (e.g., greenhouse warming, increased UV radiation flux, deteriorating ecosystem health, or some combination of the above) have not been convincing. Attempts to relate the severity and extent of large scale coral reef bleaching events to particular causes have been hampered by a lack of (a) standardized methods to assess bleaching and (b) continuous, long-term data bases of environmental conditions over the periods of interest. An effort must be made to understand the impact of bleaching on the remainder of the reef community and the long-term effects on competition, predation, symbioses, bioerosion and substrate condition, all factors that can influence coral recruitment and reef recovery. If projected rates of sea warming are realized by mid to late AD 2000, i.e. a 2°C increase in high latitude coral seas, the upper thermal tolerance limits of many reef-building corals could be exceeded. Present evidence suggests that many corals would be unable to adapt physiologically or genetically to such marked and rapid temperature increases.