Remarkably, the scientists found the LB lineage was not restricted to the Rock Islands. They found some LB colonies also living on the cooler outer reefs. An examination of the bleaching histories of these colonies again revealed fewer stress bands, indicating that they maintained the thermal tolerance characteristic of their relatives in the Rock Islands.
“This suggests that the Rock Islands provide naturally tolerant larvae to neighboring areas,” the scientists write in the paper titled “Palau’s warmest reefs harbor thermally tolerant corals that thrive across different habitats,” published in Communications Biology, a journal published by Nature. “Finding and protecting such sources of thermally-tolerant corals is key to reef survival under 21st century climate change.”
“As oceans worldwide continue to warm, corals derived from extreme habitats will be at a competitive advantage and may enable the survival of otherwise vulnerable reefs,” the authors continue. “Identifying and safeguarding natural breeding grounds of environmentally tolerant corals that can thrive under future climate conditions will be fundamental to the persistence of coral reef ecosystems worldwide in the coming decades.”
“We found that some of Palau’s reefs with the highest temperatures have corals that are more tolerant than one would expect,” said the paper’s lead author Hanny Rivera, a graduate of the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. Rivera, who conducted this work as part of her Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, is currently an associate director of business development at Ginko Bioworks. “In addition, they are genetically distinct from the same corals found in other parts of Palau, which suggests that there has been natural selection for hardier corals in these regions.”.
Paper co-author Michael Fox added that the study is particularly exciting because it combines coral genetics with historical records of bleaching preserved in their skeletons to shed light on how corals from extreme habitats with high temperature tolerance can be dispersed across a reefscape. “This integrated perspective is essential for improving projections of coral communities in a warming ocean,” said Fox, who was a postdoctoral scholar at WHOI during the research for this paper. He currently is an assistant research professor in the Red Sea Research Center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.
The Palau research is directly related to the Super Reefs initiative WHOI launched with The Nature Conservancy and Stanford University to locate coral communities that can withstand marine heat waves, and work with local communities and governments to protect them.
“This work is the scientific basis for the Super Reefs initiative,” said paper co-author Anne Cohen, a scientist at WHOI and Rivera’s advisor on the study. “The Palau research demonstrates that Super Reefs exist and also provides actionable science knowledge that can be used to support their protection.”
Cohen noted that there are other coral reefs, not just in Palau, where coral communities have not bleached as severely as scientists predicted based on the levels of thermal stress. “When we find the coral communities that are heat-tolerant or bleaching-resistant, and we protect them from other stresses that can kill them—like dynamiting, overfishing, or coastal development— they will produce millions of larvae that will travel on the currents, outside of their places of origin as we see on Palau, and they will repopulate reefs that have been devastated by heatwaves,” she said. “Nature is amazing. Our job with the Super Reefs initiative is to protect these thermally resilient reefs and let nature do the rest.”
Rivera added she is in awe of the immense appreciation, respect, and stewardship that the Palauan people have for their environment.
“They have been one of the pioneering countries in promoting marine conservation and ecological protection. It is wonderful to know that these special reefs are in such good hands,” Rivera said. “It is my greatest hope that our research will further support the Palauan people in their efforts to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem.”
Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation, The Seija Family, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, the Atlantic Charter Donor Advised Fund, The Dalio Foundation, Inc., the MIT Sea Grant Office, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Coastal Ocean Institute Grant and Ocean Venture Fund, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program, the Martin Family Fellowship for Sustainability the American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellowship, and an Angell Family Foundation Grant.
Hanny E. Rivera1,2,3*
Anne L. Cohen2*
Janelle R. Thompson3,4,5
Iliana B. Baums6
1MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science & Engineering, Cambridge and Woods Hole, MA, USA
2Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA
3Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
4Asian School of the Environment, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
5Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), Singapore
6Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA, USA
7Red Sea Research Center, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Thuwal, Saudi Arabia
About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu