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Blog - Bioenergetics for management and conservation

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Anglet, France

Bioenergetics for management and conservation is a section of the Evolutionary dynamics and management application course at University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour (Anglet, France). In this course, 2nd

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    • Corals and algae, a relationship in danger: a model to predict their future! by Clara Dignan, Anna Gago and Anabelle Leblond

      Published by Charlotte Recapet the March 2, 2020 on 2:14 PM


      Bleached branching coral (foreground) and normal branching coral (background). Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef

      Corals that come together to form coral reefs are shelter to 25% of our planet's marine life according to the WWF. This biodiversity is fundamental. It’s both a source of income and food, and it provides irreplaceable services to humanity. But today coral reefs are in danger. They are directly threatened by global warming. In forty years, 40% of the reefs have already disappeared and scientists agree that if nothing is done by 2050, all of them will be gone (Coral guardian).

      Coral polyps and algae, an endosymbiotic relationship

      Coral bleaching has now become a major global concern for the future of coral reefs. Temperature rise appears to be one of the main causes of bleaching, affecting growth, feeding and other ecological processes on reefs. This bleaching phenomenon is due to the expulsion of zooxanthellae, the symbiotic microalgae living in the tissues of the polyps (the coral is made up of a colony of polyps that participate in the making of its skeleton). These unicellular algae carry out photosynthesis and provide, for the most part, the energy that corals need to develop and grow. Exchanges between the polyp and the zooxanthellae mainly concern nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and biosynthetic intermediates. The presence of zooxanthellae being responsible for the color of the colonies, bleaching is therefore the symptom of a coral which is no longer in symbiosis, which generally results in the death of the coral.


      The coral-symbiont relationship and its interaction with the overlying water column.

      Prediction models

      Since few year, scientists analyze corals and try to predict their bleaching evolution. In this aim, a collaboration between several organizations such as CSIRO have set up a first hydrodynamic, sedimentary and biogeochemical model called: « eReef ». This model simulates the environmental conditions as the temperature, the background light and the organic nutrient concentration of the Great Barrier Reef at several scales. It allows accurate prediction of factors influencing coral processes from satellite remote sensing images.

      However, for more representative modelling, it is necessary to apply models that take into account the coral-symbiont relationship and the stress related to environmental variations. In this framework, Baird et al. have developed a model which, in parallel to the environmental conditions obtained from the « eReef » model, also takes into account essential parameters in the symbiotic process such as biomass and growth rate of zooxanthellae, pigment concentration, nutritional status as well as tolerance characteristics such as sensitivity to reactive oxygen concentration (oxidative stress).


      The eReefs coupled hydrodynamic, sediment, optical, biogeochemical model. Orange labels represent components that either scatter or absorb light levels. (For a better understanding of the colour used and the abbreviations, the reader is referred to the web version of the article)

      Take home message

      This coral bleaching model applied under realistic environmental conditions has the potential to generate more detailed predictions than satellite coral bleaching measurements. In addition to predicting coral bleaching, this model will now make it possible to evaluate management strategies, such as the introduction of temperature-tolerant individuals or species or localized shading.

      Nevertheless, this model is still too simplistic to make real predictions. It is based only on the process of a single type of coral and macro-algae and does not take into account all phenomena related to bleaching. It is therefore seen as a step forward for science that could allow for future reevaluations of the effects of bleaching.

      Bibliography

      Cited study: Bairda, M.E., Mongina, M., Rizwia, F., Bayb, L.K., Cantinb, N.E., Soja-Wo┼║niaka, M., Skerratta, J. (2018). A mechanistic model of coral bleaching due to temperature-mediated light-driven reactive oxygen build-up in zooxanthellae. Ecological Modelling 386, 20-37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2018.07.013

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