Surprising discovery about coral’s resilience could help reefs survive climate change

Adult mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) in the Florida Keys’ Cheeca Rocks.

The factors affecting coral’s resilience — its ability to adapt to and survive environmental changes — seem to be more nuanced than scientists believed.

In a study published Oct. 17 in the journal Global Change Biology, researchers reveal surprising findings about a species common to Caribbean waters. The discovery may help improve efforts to save corals from bleaching and other consequences of climate change.

A team led by Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Carly Kenkel at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences studied the mountainous star coral, Orbicella faveolata, to determine whether coral populations that have survived higher temperatures can pass their heat tolerance on to their offspring.

To the scientists’ surprise, the results showed the opposite: The offspring from a population that is less heat-tolerant performed better when exposed to high temperatures than their counterparts from a heat-tolerant population.

The findings counter the commonly held notion among scientists that if coral parents can handle the heat, so should their offspring.

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