July 19 (UPI) -- Scientists predicted in a report Monday that climate change could shift distribution of three stony corals key to Atlantic reef building ecosystem.
Oceanography researchers from the University of San Paulo in Sao Paulo, Brazil said in the report, published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the change in distribution will lead to habitat loss of stony corals and have a negative spillover effect on marine life.
They based their research on three climate scenarios for the three types of stony corals of the tropical Atlantic -- Mussimlia hispida, Montastraea cavernosa and Siderastrea complex -- including an optimistic, pessimistic and moderate scenario.
All three species suffered habitat loss under the pessimistic scenario, and one species, M. hispida, lost habitats in all of the scenarios.
Furthermore, even in the optimistic scenario, all three reef builders in the western Atlantic could experience changes in distributions, according to the researchers.
The stony corals deposit calcium carbonate to help build reefs and are vital for the health and function of reefs, but several areas along the Brazilians coast and Caribbean are expected to lose habitat suitability.
"Coral reefs provide essential ecosystem services such as food provision, coastal protection and nutrient cycling, that benefit millions of people -- including those who live far from any coral reef," study lead author Silas Principe in a press release.
"If species that are important in structuring the coral reefs are lost, the provision of those services is consequently also threatened," said Principe, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sao Paulo
The situation is especially critical for the Brazilian coast since it has fewer habitat-building coral species than the Caribbean.
"Certain areas, such as the Abrolhos region in the coast of Brazil, will completely lose at least one species in any of the future scenarios," Principe said. "Major areas in the Caribbean will also lose species in the future, although in the coast of Africa some species may expand their current range."
The study's researchers highlight the need for urgent conservation and government actions.
"Although our results predict major negative impacts on Atlantic shallow reefs, we also identified several areas where none or less changes are predicted. Managers and policy makers can use this to support the planning process of conservation areas," Principe said.
"Researchers and conservationists can use these results to focus research efforts on the so-called 'refuge areas' that may constitute safe areas for coral species in the future," Principe said.
Coral reefs also face other environmental threats.
A U.N. environmental group warned in December the world's coral reefs could be lost by the end of century due to bleaching caused by carbon emissions.