Tough Aussie corals thrive under pressure

By Karl Gruber 4 December 2015
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A community of corals found thriving despite harsh conditions in northern WA could help save corals around the world.

While coral reefs around the world are suffering from climate change, a community of corals in Western Australia is bucking the trend and thriving despite high temperatures and harsh conditions.

Scientists are investigating what makes these corals, found in the Bonaparte Archipelago in the Kimberley, so resilient, with the hope that uncovering their secrets might help save corals around the world.

“The most outstanding feature of these Kimberley corals is their health,” said Zoe Richards, a marine biologist at the Western Australian Museum who is leading the research.

“Despite repetitive low-tide exposure to extreme air temperatures, light, rainfall and high sea-surface temperatures, the Kimberley corals are exceptionally healthy and showing few signs of stress such as coral bleaching or disease,” she explained.

Related: Kimberley corals could hold the key to saving our reefs

This summer, the Kimberley corals will really be put to the test, as the combined effect of a hot summer and a strong El Niño event is predicted to cause massive bleaching events on corals across tropical Australia.

“We will be able to study whether the corals living in these changeable inshore areas have an inherent capacity to resist bleaching when compared with corals living further out to sea,” said Zoe.

‘Natural’ sunscreen 

There could be several factors explaining why the Kimberley corals are faring so well, according to the researchers. These include natural pigments that reflect light and a form of mucous that acts as a ‘natural sunscreen’. They could also be assisted by heat-tolerant microorganisms, and expressing high levels of stress-resistant genes.

“The Kimberley corals provide hope that corals may be able to adapt to warming environments, but also the opportunity to further explore what compilation of traits enhance stress resistance in a natural setting,” said Zoe.

Researchers around the world are currently on the hunt for ‘supertolerant smart corals’ to use in selective breeding programs in order to bolster the resilience of corals in troubled coral communities, and the Kimberley corals may be incredibly important in this regard, she added.