Coral reefs: battlefields for survival in a changing climate

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Coral reefs, those vibrant underwater cities, are on the brink of collapse. As rising ocean temperatures and coral bleaching make headlines, a new essay appears Current biology reveals a hidden layer of complexity in this fight for survival: the often overlooked role of the reefs’ smallest inhabitants.

Scientists have long understood the crucial partnership between corals and their symbiotic algae, but work by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Georgia highlights how the fate of entire reefs can depend on the complex interplay between a diverse group of fish and invertebrate inhabitants. It turns out that these little tenants can be both heroes and villains in the drama.

“It’s like a bustling city teetering on the edge,” explains co-author Adrian Stier, a marine biologist at UC Santa Barbara. “We are only now realizing that it is a microcosmic battleground where seemingly insignificant creatures can be the difference between a thriving reef or succumbing to human influences.”

Take the humble damselfish, for example. A recent study published in PLOS ONE found that corals inhabited by these small fish are much more likely to withstand and recover from heat waves. The researchers suggest that the fish provide a crucial nutrient boost to their coral hosts, effectively fertilizing them with their ammonia-rich waste. This finding mirrors similar work published in Biology of global changewhere damselfish was shown to help corals resist bleaching by promoting symbiosis between corals and their photosynthesizing zooxanthellae.

But it’s not just about increasing resources. Another study, also published in PLOS ONErevealed that certain territorial damselflies act as corals’ bodyguards, protecting their homes from predators and allowing the corals to spend less energy on defense and more on growth and survival.

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“This new research serves as a powerful reminder that even the smallest creatures can play an important role in the health of our planet,” Stier said.

However, not all coral inhabitants are so benevolent. The essay also highlights the dark side of these micro-relationships. Parasitic snails, such as those found in a Nature ecology and evolution study, can weaken their coral hosts, making them more susceptible to bleaching. Other creatures, such as the vermetid snail, were examined in a study published in Ecologycan disrupt the delicate balance of the reef, causing corals to outcompete for space and resources.

Even crabs, often prized for their cleaning services, can turn from helpful housekeepers to harmful hoarders. Research in Coral reef revealed that under extreme heat stress, certain crab species become aggressive, fight among themselves and ultimately damage their coral homes.

“It’s a constant dance between helpful partnerships and harmful interactions,” Stier said. “Deciphering this intricate web of life is critical if we are to effectively protect coral reefs.”

While tackling climate change remains the ultimate solution for protecting coral reefs, understanding the complex dynamics between corals and their miniature inhabitants can be crucial to buying valuable time for these vital ecosystems. By identifying and protecting the heroes and limiting the damage caused by the villains, scientists hope to tip the balance in favor of the survival of coral reefs.

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