Physiological effects of heat and cold exposure in the common reef coral Acropora millepora

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Reef-forming corals are under threat globally from climate change, leading to changes in sea temperatures with both hot and cold events recorded and projected to increase in frequency and severity in the future. Tolerance to heat and cold exposure has been found to be mutually exclusive in other marine invertebrates, but it is currently unclear whether a trade-off exists between hot and cold thermal tolerance in tropical corals. This study quantified the changes in physiology in Acropora millepora from the central Great Barrier Reef subjected to three temperature treatments; sub-lethal cold, ambient and sub-lethal heat (23.0 °C, 27.0 °C and 29.5 °C, respectively). After 10 weeks, pigment content and Symbiodiniaceae density increased in cold-treated corals but decreased in heat-treated corals relative to corals at ambient conditions. Heat-treated corals gained less mass relative to both ambient and cold-treated corals. These results indicate that the physiological condition of A. millepora corals examined here improved in response to mild cold exposure compared to ambient exposure and decreased under mild heat exposure despite both these temperatures occurring in situ around 15% of the year. The energetic condition of corals in the hotter treatment was reduced compared to both ambient and cooler groups, indicating that corals may be more resilient to mild cold exposure relative to mild heat exposure. The results indicate that the corals shifted their resource allocation in response to temperature treatment, investing more energy into skeletal extension rather than maintenance. No evidence of thermal tolerance trade-offs was found, and cold thermal tolerance was not lost in more heat-tolerant individuals. An enhanced understanding of physiological responses of corals at both ends of the thermal spectrum is important for predicting the resilience of corals under projected climate change conditions.

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The authors wish to thank the staff at the National SeaSimulator Precinct at the Australian Institute of Marine Science for their generous help and expertise offered during the course of the experiment. This research was funded by internal funds from the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Student support and transport to AIMS was provided by AIMS@JCU.

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Nielsen, J.J.V., Kenkel, C.D., Bourne, D.G. et al. Physiological effects of heat and cold exposure in the common reef coral Acropora millepora. Coral Reefs (2020) doi:10.1007/s00338-019-01881-x

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  • Thermal tolerance
  • Coral
  • Energetic condition
  • Cold exposure
  • Trade-offs