How to identify heat-stressed corals

Bleached coral at Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Bleached coral appears bone white
Image: Mia Hoogenboom, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

‘Coral hospital’ tool could help safeguard reefs facing coral bleaching

Researchers have found a novel way to identify heat-stressed corals, which could help scientists pinpoint the coral species that need protection from warming ocean waters.

Warming oceans cause heat stress in corals, this can lead to the loss of algae that live in symbiosis with them. This results is the corals’ white appearance – coral bleaching – which is now a worldwide ecological problem.

Infographic on corals and heat stress

Monitoring the health of a coral reef before any bleaching would allow time for pre-emptive conservation efforts. A new American study examined how Hawaiian stony corals respond to heat stress, and found the identifying chemical indicators of stress.

“This is similar to a blood test to assess human health,” said senior author Debashish Bhattacharya of Rutgers-New Brunswick. “We can assess coral health and ultimately, identify the best interventions to ensure reef health.”

Coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef
Coral bleaching | Image: Chris Jones/CSIRO

The scientists are also developing a “coral hospital” featuring a new lab-on-a-chip device, which could check coral health in the field using metabolite and protein indicators.

Coral reefs provide numerous benefits — habitat, nursery and spawning grounds for fish; food for about 500 million people along with their livelihoods; and coastline protection from storms and erosion.

Global climate change threatens corals by warming ocean waters, resulting in coral bleaching and disease. Other threats to corals include sea level rise, a more acidic ocean, unsustainable fishing, damage from vessels, invasive species, marine debris and tropical cyclones.

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