Scientists are using novel methods to ensure corals survive long enough to evolve adaptations to climate change, according to a recent report in The Guardian.

We probably don’t need to tell you that coral reefs are exceptional places. Anyone who’s ever donned a mask and explored these underwater worlds can instantly see they’re special. But coral reefs offer much more beyond their colourful allure. Not only do they support a quarter of all marine species, they also protect our coasts from erosion and produce oxygen for us land-dwellers to breathe. And, if those fundamentals weren’t enough, coral reefs also provide livelihoods for around a billion people!

Hope for the world's coral reefs - Photo by John Cahil
Hope for the world's coral reefs - Photo by John Cahil

Corals are survivors. They first emerged some 500 million years ago and despite a mass extinction event or two, the species that we know and love  have been thriving for over 240 million years - making them one of the oldest ecosystems on the planet. Unfortunately, having survived this long, these slow-growing yet adaptable organisms are struggling in today’s fast-changing world. 

Yet, as is often the case in nature, some corals are doing better than others. Research scientist at New York University, Michael Webster, highlights the Great Barrier Reef, where up to 70% of coral has died in some places. He says “What that means is 30% of the coral survived, perhaps because it is more tolerant. Those are the corals that produce the next generation, which inherits some of those traits”. And, sure enough, one study found that corals which survived a bleaching event in 2016, boasted double the average heat tolerance the following year. 

Interestingly, corals also seem to be on the move. Dissatisfied with their ever-warming surroundings, some species are appearing in cooler waters closer to the poles, including Japan and southern Australia.

Hope for the world's coral reefs
Hope for the world's coral reefs

But it’s not enough to let a few hardy corals fight this battle alone. If they are to survive, coral reefs need to be better protected, so they can deal with modern challenges without suffering unnecessary stress from overfishing, plastic pollution, unsustainable tourism, and more. And there’s an impressive list of intervention initiatives around the world intent on taking things one step further – by actively supporting reefs and allowing them to find their own road to recovery. 

These initiatives come in all shapes and sizes, from removing coral predators like the crown of thorns starfish to building resilience within reef-fishing communities and empowering them with alternative sources of income. Other activities include planting heat-tolerant polyps from other parts of the world, 3D-printing reef substrate, and playing the sound of healthy reefs to attract fish back to the area. Some have even suggested planting lab-grown and genetically-engineered polyps to improve overall reef resilience.

Michael Webster suggests “For evolution to occur quickly usually requires a lot of death: that is the natural selection signal. Right now, we’re in the ugly beginning of that process”. And when the corals die, the reef disappears, and an entire ecosystem collapses. 

"I believe a lot of corals are going to get through this bottleneck, they’re not going to go extinct, they’re going to figure out a way to pace with climate change, so long as we give them some room."- Michael Webster, New York University researcher

So it’s up to us to ensure that these remarkable coral reefs last long enough to find their own strategies for survival.