Heating rate explains species-specific coral bleaching severity during a simulated marine heatwave

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Marine heatwaves (MHWs) are becoming more frequent as a consequence of climate change. These discrete events are causing widespread stress and mortality in marine ecosystems, including coral reefs. The heat tolerance of different coral species is often complex and depends on a combination of environmental and biological factors, making accurate predictions of the impact of MHWs on individual species challenging. Heating rate has been shown to influence coral bleaching in Acropora species, but it remains unknown how heating rate influences bleaching in other corals with contrasting morphology and bleaching sensitivities. In this study, we explored the sensitivity of Pocillopora damicornis and Plesiastrea versipora, representing branching and encrusting growth forms, respectively, to heating rate. We experimentally simulated MHWs with slow (0.5°C d−1) and fast (1°C d−1) heating rates and measured physiological responses to quantify changes in coral health, including photochemical efficiency, holobiont metabolism, tissue biomass, chl a, and symbiont density. Our results confirm that heating rate is a good predictor of coral bleaching sensitivity for these species, with faster heating rates causing more severe bleaching and declines in coral health. However, bleaching sensitivity differed between P. damicornis and P. versipora, with P. damicornis more affected by the faster heating rate. The use of heating rate, in addition to other metrics such as duration and intensity of heat, will enhance our capacity to predict the local impact of MHW events and their overarching ecological consequences for coral ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-46
Number of pages14
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023


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