Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Corals that prefer isolation to life on a reef are more likely to survive as oceans warm and become more acidic, according to a new study published in the journal Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology.
Numerous studies have documented the negative impact global warming is already having on coral around the globe. As oceans warm and marine heatwaves become more frequent and long-lasting, more and more corals are experiencing bleaching events.
Both heat stress and rising ocean acidity render corals less able to defend against disease and hungry predators. But as previous studies have shown, some corals are better able to adapt than others.
New research out of the University of Texas at Austin suggests more reclusive corals, which prefer to anchor themselves from their relatives on the reef, are more likely to survive bleaching events.
To better understand how corals will respond as temperatures continue to rise, scientists examined coral fossils that lived 56 million years ago during the transition from the Paleocene to the Early Eocene. The 200,000 year transition period featured several temperature spikes and a significant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Temperatures during the transition were as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today, and the oceans were much more acidic.
The fossil evidence showed solitary corals diversified during the period, while many coral species that prefer to gather on reefs disappeared.
Researchers were able to identify other characteristics about the species that survived the ancient warming periods. Corals that caught food independently, rather than absorbing nutrients from algae, were more likely to adapt to warmer, more acidic oceans.
"Conservationists want to know what traits might help different species survive global change," Rowan Martindale, an assistant professor of geosciences, said in a news release. "If we can find patterns to survival, we may be able to help our reefs do better today and in the coming years."
While the evidence suggests many corals were able to adapt to dramatic warming, researchers warn human-caused climate change is occurring much faster than warming did 56 million years.
And even if solitary coral persist, the loss of reefs will have dramatic impacts on marine ecosystems.
"Although corals themselves might survive, if they're not building reefs, that's going to cause other problems within the ecosystem," said researcher Anna Weiss, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas. "Reefs support really big, diverse communities."