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Contrasting patterns of mortality in Polynesian coral reefs following the third global coral bleaching event in 2016

Abstract

In 2016, many tropical corals worldwide were exposed to anomalously high temperatures due to one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded. Bleaching impacts were reported on 23 islands within three archipelagos of French Polynesia (Tuamotu, Society and Marquesas archipelagos). A detailed study on the effects of elevated temperatures on corals was performed on five islands (Mo’orea, Makemo, Hikueru, Marutea and Katiu) and revealed contrasting patterns of coral bleaching responses between Mo’orea (Society Archipelago) and the four islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago. While some reefs from the Tuamotu lost more than half of their coral cover, in Mo’orea, less than 1% mortality was recorded 6 months after bleaching. During the 2016 bleaching event, certain reefs at 12 m depth in the outer reef habitats were not exposed to sufficiently long high-temperature periods (heat stress not exceeding 1.1 °C weeks in Mo’orea) to cause large-scale bleaching-related coral mortality. In contrast, other reefs in the Tuamotu Archipelago had DHW reaching up to 9.2 °C weeks and experienced severe mortality (up to 71%). Our study showed how differential heat stress exposure across reefs of French Polynesia led to different impacts on corals. Until now, Mo’orea reefs have been spared abnormally high temperatures leading to mortality and should be considered an important source of larvae to help maintain reefs on the surrounding islands.

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Acknowledgements

We thank V. Liao, B. Le Bouille, D. Guillemeney, and the staff of Maupiti Diving, Y. Verdez and N. Massoud, for information on coral bleaching in French Polynesia. We thank the Service de l’Observation SO Corail for providing information relating to coral bleaching. We acknowledge the Tara Expeditions Foundation for the opportunity to conduct this study onboard the Tara. We are grateful to the Tara team and sponsors for their support during the first Tuamotu leg of the Tara Pacific Expedition 2016–2018. This project was funded by the Ministère de l’Outre Mer for a project entitled “AQUA-CORAL” and the Ministère de l’Environnement and the Labex CORAIL for a project entitled “ARCOS.”

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Correspondence to Laetitia Hédouin.

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Hédouin, L., Rouzé, H., Berthe, C. et al. Contrasting patterns of mortality in Polynesian coral reefs following the third global coral bleaching event in 2016. Coral Reefs 39, 939–952 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-020-01914-w

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Keywords

  • Coral bleaching
  • El Niño
  • Mo’orea
  • Tuamotu
  • Mortality