How does rising atmospheric CO2 affect marine organisms?

Click to locate material archived on our website by topic

Shelf-Margin Fossil Corals of the Gulf of Mexico off the Texas Coast
Precht, W.F., Deslarzes, K.J.P., Hickerson, E.L., Schmahl, G.P., Nuttall, M.F. and Aronson, R.B. 2014. Back to the future: The history of acroporid corals at the Flower Garden Banks, Gulf of Mexico, USA. Marine Geology 349: 152-161.

The authors write that "coral assemblages on many reefs of the western Atlantic-Caribbean region have been highly volatile in recent decades," while "by contrast," they say the benthic communities at the Flower Garden Banks (FGB) - two shelf-margin reefs some 175 km off the coast of Texas in the western Gulf of Mexico - "have been remarkably stable during this time (Aronson et al., 2005)." However, they also note that the recent decadal-scale stability at the FGB site "belies centennial- to millennial-scale dynamics that are critical to understanding the history of these reefs and their future in a warming ocean."

What was done
Very briefly, Precht et al. "report the discovery of fossil acroporid corals at the FGB and use their ages and stratigraphic positions to reconstruct the ecological history of the Banks."

What was learned
First of all, the six scientists report the discovery of fossil elkhorn corals (Acropora palmata) at the FGB site that corresponded in time to what they say was "an interval of warmer-than-present sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) during the Holocene thermal maximum (HTM)." In addition, they note that another acroporid (A. cervicornis) "dominated the flanks of the FGB during the late Holocene, through the Medieval Warm Period, until they were killed by the coldest conditions of the Little Ice Age (Glynn et al., 1983)."

Continuing, Precht et al. opine that "the recent return of A. palmata colonies to the reef caps may be a bellwether of climate change," citing Precht and Aronson (2004) and noting that "over the past few decades, hundreds of species have responded to recent warming trends by expanding their ranges to higher latitudes, as well as by changing their phenologies (Walther et al., 2002; Parmesan and Yohe, 2003; Root et al., 2003; Berge et al., 2005; Figueria and Booth, 2010; Fodrie et al., 2010; Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno, 2010)." And they say "the most parsimonious explanation for the return of A. palmata to the FGB is a decadal-scale increase in sea temperature (Levitus et al., 2000; Barnett et al., 2001; Hansen et al., 2006; Seidel et al., 2008), or a reduction in the frequency of extreme cold events (Cavanaugh et al., 2013)," while noting that similar range expansions of acroporids have been observed along the east coast of Florida (Precht and Aronson, 2004; ARBT, 2005), in Australia (Marsh, 1992; Veron, 1995; Baird et al., 2012), and in Japan (Yamano et al., 2011)."

What it means
In light of these several observations, Precht et al. conclude that "if the newly arrived acroporids persist and expand, we may well witness a new stage of reef development that is in reality a return to the conditions of times past," all of which suggests that earth's corals are well equipped to deal with significant shifts in planetary temperatures, as they have successfully done so many times before.

ABRT - Acropora Biological Review Team. 2005. Atlantic Acropora status review document. Report to National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office (March 3, 152 pp.).

Aronson, R.B., Precht, W.F., Murdoch, T.J. and Robbart, M.L. 2005. Long-term persistence of coral assemblages on the Flower Garden Banks, northwestern Gulf of Mexico: implications for science and management. Gulf of Mexico Science 23: 84-94.

Baird, A.H., Sommer, B. and Madin, J.S. 2012. Pole-ward range expansion of Acropora spp. along the east coast of Australia. Coral Reefs 31: 1063.

Barnett, T.P., Pierce, D.W. and Schnur, R. 2001. Detection of anthropogenic climate change in the world's oceans. Science 292: 270-274.

Berge, J., Johnsen, G., Nilsen, F., Gulliksen, B. and Slagstad, D. 2005. Ocean temperature oscillations enable reappearance of blue mussels Mytilus edulis in Svalbard after a 1000-year absence. Marine Ecology Progress Series 303: 167-175.

Cavanaugh, K.C., Keilner, J.R., Forde, A.J., Gruner, D.S., Parker, J.D., Rodriquez, W. and Feller, I.C. 2013. Poleward expansion of mangroves is a threshold response to decreased frequency of extreme cold events. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111: 723-727.

Figueria, W.F., Booth, D.J. 2010. Increasing ocean temperatures allow tropical fishes to survive overwinter in temperate waters. Global Change Biology 16: 506-516.

Fodrie, F.J., Heck, K.L., Powers, S.P., Graham, W.M. and Robinson, K.L. 2010. Climate-related decadal-scale assemblage changes of seagrass-associated fishes in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Global Change Biology 16: 48-59.

Glynn, P.W., Druffel, E.M. and Dunbar, R.B. 1983. A dead Central American coral reef tract: possible link with the Little Ice Age. Journal of Marine Research 41: 605-637.

Hansen, J., Sato, M., Ruedy, R., Lo, K., Lea, D.W. and Medina-Elizade, M. 2006. Global temperature change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 103: 14,288-14,293.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O. and Bruno, J.F. 2010. The impact of climate change on the world's marine ecosystems. Science 328: 1523-1528.

Levitus, S., Antonov, J.I., Boyer, T.P. and Stephens, C. 2000. Warming of the world ocean. Science 287: 2225-2228.

Marsh, L.M. 1992. The occurrence and growth of Acropora in extratropical waters off Perth, Western Australia. Proceedings of the Seventh International Coral Reef Symposium, Guam. 2, 2, pp. 1233-1238.

Parmesan, C. and Yohe, G. 2003. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421: 37-42.

Precht, W.F. and Aronson, R.B. 2004. Climate flickers and range shifts of reef corals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6: 307-313.

Root, T.L., Price, J.T., Hall, K.R., Schneider, S.H., Rosenzweig, C. and Pounds, J.A. 2003. Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants. Nature 421: 57-60.

Seidel, D.J., Fu, Q., Randel, W.J. and Reichler, T.J. 2008. Widening of the tropical belt in a changing climate. Nature Geosciences 1: 21-24.

Veron, J. 2013. Corals in Space and Time: The Biogeography and Evolution of the Scleractinia. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Walther, G.-R., Post, E., Convey, P., Menzel, A., Parmesan, C., Beebee, T.J.C., Fromentin, J.-M., Hoegh-Guldberg, O. and Bairlein, F. 2002. Ecological responses to recent climate change. Nature 416: 389-395.

Yamano, H., Sugihara, K. and Nomura, K. 2011. Rapid poleward range expansion of tropical reef corals in response to rising sea surface temperatures. Geophysical Research Letters 38: 1-6.

Reviewed 20 August 2014