Coral Reefs

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 15–27 | Cite as

Differential thermal bleaching susceptibilities amongst coral taxa: re-posing the role of the host

  • Scott A. Wooldridge


It is well established that different coral species have different susceptibilities to thermal stress, yet it is less clear which biological or physical mechanisms allow some corals to resist thermal stress, whereas other corals bleach and die. Although the type of symbiont is clearly of fundamental importance, many aspects of coral bleaching cannot be explained solely by differences in symbionts amongst coral species. Here, I use the CO2 (sink) limitation model of coral bleaching to repose various host traits believed to influence thermal tolerance (e.g. metabolic rates, colony tissue thickness, skeletal growth form, mucus production rates, tissue concentration of fluorescent pigments and heterotrophic feedings capacity) in terms of an integrated strategy to reduce the likelihood of CO2 limitation around its intracellular photosymbionts. Contrasting observational data for the skeletal vital effect on oxygen isotope composition (δ18O) partitions two alternate evolutionary strategies. The first strategy is heavily reliant on a sea water supply chain of CO2 to supplement respiratory CO2(met). In contrast, the alternate strategy is less reliant on the sea water supply source, potentially facilitated by increased basal respiration rates and/or a lower photosynthetic demand for CO2. The comparative vulnerability of these alternative strategies to modern ocean conditions is used to explain the global-wide observation that corals with branching morphologies (and thin tissue layers) are generally more thermally sensitive than corals with massive morphologies (and thick tissue layers). The life history implications of this new framework are discussed in terms of contrasting fitness drivers and past environmental constraints, which delivers ominous predictions for the viability of thin-tissued branching and plating species during the present human-dominated (“Anthropocene”) era of the Earth System.


CO2 limitation Coral bleaching Respiration Photoinhibition Vital effects Ocean acidification Zooxanthellae density 



I thank Dr Christine Ferrier-Pages (Centre Scientifique de Monaco) for providing access to the CSD density data displayed in Fig. 6. The paper benefited from the comments and suggestions of two anonymous reviewers.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia

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