New hope for Barrier Reef follows Red Sea coral discovery

18 May 2017

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SBS World News Radio: Marine biologists working in the Red Sea say a type of coral has been discovered that could be resistant to climate change-induced bleaching.

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Just below the surface, in the Gulf of Aqaba, scientists have made a discovery they hope could save the world's coral reefs.

A team of researchers from Switzerland and Israel has been monitoring the decline of the world's coral populations.

Professor Anders Meibom of the Swiss Federal Institute Of Technology, says the future looks grim.

"Water temperatures are rising, they're rising fast and this is stressing the corals to the point where they die. At this rate of decline there will be not many reefs left on this planet already at the end of this century."

But the coral in the Red Sea is different.

Specimens of the Stylophora pistillata coral are taken and put into tanks, where they're exposed to what the research team calls stressful conditions - rising temperatures and sub-optimal PH levels.

They are conditions researcher Thomas Krueger expects in the ocean of the future.

But what wasn't expected, was the coral's reaction.

"Most of the variables that we measured, such as energy metabolism or building a skeleton, were actually improved, which suggests actually that these corals are living under suboptimal temperatures right now and might be better prepared for future ocean warming."

Scientists believe the reason the coral is not only surviving but thriving in the stress tests is that the coral in the Gulf of Aqaba is highly evolved due to the historical extreme changes of the climate in the region.

The ramifications of the discovery could be significant.

Associate Professor David Suggett leads the Future Reefs Program at the University of Technology Sydney.

He says the discovery of this, and other reefs like it, could indicate a different future for the world's coral populations.

"All these kind of discoveries are really exciting. What we're starting to learn is that corals are surviving in waters that are really hot, really acidic, have very little oxygen and these are the conditions we've predicted under climate change."

In Australia last year scientists reported that an 800-kilometre stretch of the Great Barrier Reef had died due to high water temperatures - the worst deterioration on record.

Next month, Associate Professor Suggett will lead an expedition in the Great Barrier Reef in the hopes of discovering similarly resilient forms of coral in Australian waters.

"If we can find these resilient populations at least it gives us options in terms of potentially restoring the reef and aiding resilience and recovery."

The ability to re-seed part of the dying reef with more-resistant coral is so far untested, but it's a prospect scientists describe as a game-changer.

 

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