Coral Reefs

, Volume 38, Issue 4, pp 591–603 | Cite as

Unravelling the links between heat stress, bleaching and disease: fate of tabular corals following a combined disease and bleaching event

  • O. B. Brodnicke
  • D. G. Bourne
  • S. F. Heron
  • R. J. Pears
  • J. S. Stella
  • H. A. Smith
  • B. L. WillisEmail author


While links between heat stress and coral bleaching are clear and predictive tools for bleaching risk are well advanced, links between heat stress and outbreaks of coral diseases are less well understood. In this study, the effects of accumulated heat stress on tagged colonies of tabular Acropora were monitored over the 2017 austral summer at Beaver Reef, which is located in the central region of the Great Barrier Reef. The initial surveys in midsummer (21 February) coincided with an accumulated heat stress metric of 4.5 °C-weeks, and documented high coral cover (74.0 ± 6.5%), extensive bleaching (71% of all corals displayed bleaching signs) and an outbreak of white syndromes (WSs) (31% of tabular acroporid corals displayed white syndrome signs). Repeat assessments of the impacts of bleaching and disease on these corals provided real-time information to reef managers by tracking the unfolding reef health incident on 100 colonies of Acropora hyacinthus (Dana, 1846), tagged in mid-March and surveyed intermittently until late October 2017. Heat stress increased rapidly on Beaver Reef, peaking at 8.3 °C-weeks on 31 March, which coincided with the highest prevalence of WS recorded in the study. Of the 85 tagged colonies surviving on 31 March, 41 (~ 48%) displayed WS signs, indicating a link between heat stress and WS. When re-surveyed at eight months (24 October), 68 of 100 tagged colonies had suffered whole-colony mortality and only four colonies had not displayed signs of bleaching or disease (WS) in any of our surveys. Overall, coral cover on Beaver Reef was reduced by more than half to 31.0 ± 11.2%. Significant tissue loss due to severe bleaching was observed with up to 20 times greater tissue loss on severely bleached colonies (i.e. categorised as > 50% bleached) compared to mildly/moderately bleached colonies (< 50% bleached) at the heat stress peak (31 March). This suggests that for Acropora hyacinthus, a threshold of 50% colony bleaching is a good indicator that substantial mortality at both the colony and population level is likely to follow a heat stress event. Across all levels of bleaching, colonies displaying WS signs exhibited up to seven times greater tissue loss than bleached-only colonies. WS caused a threefold increase in accumulated tissue loss (69.6 ± 10.5% tissue lost) in the mildly bleached category, suggesting that disease exacerbated mortality in bleached corals and contributed significantly to the substantial loss of corals on the GBR in 2017.


Coral bleaching Coral disease Heat stress Coral mortality Great Barrier Reef Coral reefs Acropora 



This study was made possible by financial support from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and funding from the ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies to B. Willis. Kerryn Bell (Reef Express) is thanked for facilitating the survey trips to Beaver Reef and her infectious passion for corals reefs. Abby Fatland, Allison Paley, Carly Hayk, Carine Lefevre, Kate Quigley, Margaux Hein, Phil Osmond, Saskia McDonald and Svenja Müller are all thanked for their laboratory and fieldwork assistance. SFH was supported by NASA ROSES Ecological Forecasting Grant #16-eco4cast-0032 to the University of Hawaii. The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA or the Department of Commerce. All tagging, surveys and sampling were performed under the auspice of GBRMPA permit G16/38009.1.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Marine Biological Section, Department of BiologyUniversity of CopenhagenHelsingørDenmark
  2. 2.College of Science and EngineeringJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia
  4. 4.Marine Geophysical Laboratory, Physics Department, College of Science and EngineeringJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  5. 5.NOAA/NESDIS, STAR Coral Reef Watch5830 University Research CourtCollege ParkUSA
  6. 6.Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthorityTownsvilleAustralia
  7. 7.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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