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Twenty-five years of change in scleractinian coral communities of Daya Bay (northern South China Sea) and its response to the 2008 AD extreme cold climate event


Coral reefs worldwide are becoming increasingly and detrimentally impacted upon by a variety of factors including significant climate changes, such as global warming and increased El Nino-Southern Oscillation activity. Generally, the persistence of coral reefs, especially at low-latitudes, is governed, in part, by sea surface temperatures not exceeding the critical limit (∼30°C) at which mass mortality can occur. Thus, it is thought that corals living at high-latitudes (i.e., currently cooler sea surface temperatures) will likely respond more favourably to hypothesized future temperature increases than corals living at low-latitudes (i.e., currently warmer sea surface temperatures). Consequently, high-latitude coral communities may have the potential to act as regions of refugia for many coral species in the face of potential future global warming. The Daya Bay (22°31′–22°50′N), northern South China Sea, contains several high-latitude non-reefal coral communities and represents one of the most northerly distributions of scleractinian corals within the region. Significantly, Daya Bay has experienced dramatic warming in both air and sea surface temperatures throughout the past 50 years. In this paper, we analyze 25 years of change in the Daya Bay coral communities, based both on historic surveys and our latest 2006–2008 regional ecological surveys. Our results suggest that, contrary to predictions, there have been significant declines in coral cover within the Daya Bay during the past 25 years (i.e., 76.6% coral cover in 1983/1984 to only 15.3% coral cover by 2008). Such changes also reflect a significant shift in the most abundant coral species, from Acropora pruinosa to Favites abdita. Most of the modern coral communities became established between 15 and 30 years ago, corresponding to a period of increased winter sea surface temperature. However, very few colonies have become established within the last 15 years, despite a more intense period of warming. By taking into account additional factors, we hypothesize that direct anthropogenic impacts, rather than climatic events, have both restricted the development, and drove the decline, of Daya Bay coral communities in the last 15 years. The Daya Bay has also been subjected to occasional extreme cold events during the past 50 years, with the most recent occurring in early 2008 (13 January–13 February). During the 2008 cold event, the lowest air temperature reaches only 6.6°C, and the mean sea surface temperature for February fall to < 14°C, including six continuous days at 12.3°C. Significantly, the sea surface temperatures fall below the hypothesized critical lower temperature threshold (∼13°C) that commonly leads to mass mortality in scleractinian coral communities. Surprisingly, our coral community surveys, conducted both before (August 2007) and after (late February 2008) the extreme 2008 cold event, demonstrate that the Daya Bay coral ecosystems are barely impacted upon during the cold period. Those observations suggest that the Daya Bay scleractinian coral communities have developed adaptations to low sea surface temperatures. Overall, our data support the hypothesis that high-latitude coral communities, such as Daya Bay, have the potential to act as areas of refugia for scleractinian corals in the advent of potential future global warming.

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Author information

Correspondence to KeFu Yu.

Additional information

Supported by Knowledge Innovation Project of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. KZCX2-YW-318), National Basic Research Program of China (Grant No. 2007CB815905), National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 40830852), and the Australian Research Council (Grant No. DP0773081)

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Chen, T., Yu, K., Shi, Q. et al. Twenty-five years of change in scleractinian coral communities of Daya Bay (northern South China Sea) and its response to the 2008 AD extreme cold climate event. Chin. Sci. Bull. 54, 2107–2117 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11434-009-0007-8

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  • high-latitude
  • scleractinian coral
  • cold climate event
  • global warming
  • Daya Bay (South China Sea)