Coral bleaching patterns are the outcome of complex biological and environmental networking

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Global Change Biology, 2020, 26 (1), pp. 68 - 79
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© 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Continued declines in coral reef health over the past three decades have been punctuated by severe mass coral bleaching-induced mortality events that have grown in intensity and frequency under climate change. Intensive global research efforts have therefore persistently focused on bleaching phenomena to understand where corals bleach, when and why—resulting in a large—yet still somewhat patchy—knowledge base. Particularly catastrophic bleaching-induced coral mortality events in the past 5 years have catalyzed calls for a more diverse set of reef management tools, extending far beyond climate mitigation and reef protection, to also include more aggressive interventions. However, the effectiveness of these various tools now rests on rapidly assimilating our knowledge base of coral bleaching into more integrated frameworks. Here, we consider how the past three decades of intensive coral bleaching research has established the basis for complex biological and environmental networks, which together regulate outcomes of bleaching severity. We discuss how we now have enough scaffold for conceptual biological and environmental frameworks underpinning bleaching susceptibility, but that new tools are urgently required to translate this to an operational system informing—and testing—bleaching outcomes. Specifically, adopting network models that can fully describe and predict metabolic functioning of coral holobionts, and how this functioning is regulated by complex doses and interactions among environmental factors. Identifying knowledge gaps limiting operation of such models is the logical step to immediately guide and prioritize future experiments and observations. We are at a time-critical point where we can implement new capacity to resolve how coral bleaching patterns emerge from complex biological–environmental networks, and so more effectively inform rapidly evolving ecological management and social adaptation frameworks aimed at securing the future of coral reefs.
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