Experimental evidence for high temperature stress as the cause of El Niño-coincident coral mortality
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- Glynn, P.W. & D'Croz, L. Coral Reefs (1990) 8: 181. doi:10.1007/BF00265009
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High temperature tolerance experiments performed on Pocillopora damicornis, a major reef-building coral in the tropical eastern Pacific, resulted in loss of zooxanthellae, histopathological abnormalities, and mortality similar to that observed during the severe 1982–83 El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event. Coral vitality declined significantly at 30–32°C during a 10-week period, but remained high at normal temperatures (26–28°C). Laboratory time courses to coral morbidity and death were similar to those observed in the field. Experimental high temperatures had a greater negative effect on corals from the Gulf of Panama, which experiences seasonally cool upwellings, than on corals from the nonupwelling Gulf of Chiriqui. The condition of obligate symbiotic crustaceans (Trapezia, Alpheus) associated with experimental corals declined with their host's declining condition. All Gulf of Panama corals subjected to 32°C were dead after 5 weeks, and all of their associated crustacean symbionts were dead after 9 weeks. Gulf of Chiriqui corals at 30°C survived for 9 weeks and 42% of their crustacean symbionts were still alive after 10 weeks. Coral mortality in the Gulf of Panama was significantly higher (68.5%) after El Niño warming than after subsequent episodes of unusually intense cool upwellings (10.4%). Low temperature stress (cool currents and upwelling) has been generally suggested as the critical limiting condition that prevents extensive coral reef development in the eastern Pacific. Our results suggest that infrequent but severe ENSO sea warming events also may limit reef development in this region.