Do Hybrids of Threatened Corals Survive Better in a Warming Ocean?

Grant Winners

  • Nicole Fogarty, Ph.D. – Oceanographic Center
  • Margaret Rushmore, B.S. – Oceanographic Center

Dean

  • Richard Dodge, Ph.D. – Oceanographic Center

Abstract

Award Winners

Corals build the foundation of shallow tropical ecosystems but are threatened by climate change.  Hybridization can provide an avenue for rapid adaptation to changing conditions. Corals hybridize with some frequency and results range from the introduction of a few genes into the parental species, to the birth of a new, perhaps better adapted genetic lineage.  The only most well known coral hybrid system consists of the once dominant but now threatened Caribbean species, Acropora cervicornis and A. palmata.  The hybrids of these species are not sterile and can form second generation hybrids.  Additionally, they are capable of mating with both parental species and may provide an avenue for rapid adaptation to climate change.  While these hybrids and rare in the past, they are now increasing in number, thriving in shallow habitats with extreme temperatures and light intensity, and expanding into the parental species habitats. 

What remains uncertain is what mechanism allow hybrids to thrive in hot, shallow waters?  Laboratory experiments will be conducted to determine if the hybrids ability to withstand high temperature better than the parental species can help explain their recent success. After exposing the hybrids and parental species to increased seawater temperatures for 48 hrs, we will visually examine the coral tissue and cells for damage and conduct molecular assays to determine if the hybrid demonstrates less stress.  This research will help explain how a coral hybrid can thrive when most corals are declining at alarming rates. This information will help managers and policy makers understand if corals can adapt to a changing climate and how to better allocate limit resources to conserving this priceless ecosystem.