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Coral Bleaching 101

Presented by Mark Eakin Coordinator, NOAA Coral Reef Watch

What is a coral?
-A coral is actually a coral colony -Rocky limestone base -Surface is covered by thousands of tiny coral animals, called polyps -Polyps are filled with microscopic algae

Anatomy of a coral polyp

-Each polyp looks like a tiny sea anemone -Ring of stinging tentacles around a central mouth -Rests in a cup on the surface of the colony

What do corals eat?

-Like a sea anemone, the polyp can capture small prey (mostly zooplankton) with its tentacles -Also get nutrition from a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae.

What are zooxanthellae?




What are zooxanthellae?

-Algae that live in the coral polyps surface layer -Algae get nutrients and a safe place to grow -Corals get oxygen and help with waste removal -Corals also get most of their food from the algae

Photo: Michael ten Lohuis

What is coral bleaching?

Healthy coral

Bleached coral

Coral bleaching is caused by stress Poll question: what might be stressful for a coral? Well get back to the answer later.

What turns the coral white?

Healthy coral with algae
Bleached coral with no algae

- As a stress response, corals expel the symbiotic zooxanthellae from their tissues - The coral tissue is clear, so you see the white limestone skeleton underneath

What can stress a coral?

-High light or UV levels -Cold temperatures -Low salinity and high turbidity from coastal runoff events or heavy rain -Exposure to air during very low tides -Major: high water temperatures
Photos: AIMS and GBRMPA

Thermal stress
-Corals live close to their thermal maximum limit -If water gets 1 or 2C higher than the summer average, corals get stressed and bleach -NOAA satellites measure global ocean temperature and thermal stress

How warm is warm?

How hot do you think the ocean has to get before corals start to bleach?

Can corals recover?

-Yes, if the stress doesnt last too long -Some corals can eat more zooplankton to help survive the lack of zooxanthellae -Some species are more resistant to bleaching, and more able to recover
Photos: AIMS and GBRMPA

Can corals recover?

-Corals may eventually regain color by repopulating their zooxanthellae -Algae may come from the water column -Or they may come from reproduction of the few cells that remain in the coral
Jeff Miller, National Park Service

Can corals recover?

-Corals can begin to recover after a few weeks

Jeff Miller, National Park Service

Does bleaching kill corals?

-Yes, if the stress is severe -Some of the polyps in a colony might die -If the bleaching is really severe, whole colonies might die -Bleaching in Puerto Rico killed an 800-year-old star coral colony in 2005

What else can stress do to corals?

Photo: Caroline Rogers, USGS

Question: what is something that happens to people when they are highly stressed? Gain weight Get sick Turn orange

What else can stress do to corals?

Photo: Caroline Rogers, USGS

Question: what is something that happens to people when they are highly stressed? Answer: more likely to get sick

Bleaching and coral disease

-Coral diseases are found around the world -High temperatures and bleaching can leave corals more vulnerable to disease -Can quickly kill part or all of the coral colony
Marilyn E. Brandt, University of Miami

Bleaching and bioerosion

-We have seen that bleaching can kill part or all of a coral colony -Areas of dead coral are more vulnerable to bioerosion (when animals wear away the coral reefs limestone structure)

Hurricanes & coral bleaching

2005: Most named storms Most hurricanes Most damage in US

The same warm water that causes corals to bleach can also lead to strong hurricanes.

Hurricanes : a mixed blessing

-Hurricanes can cause direct physical damage to coral reefs

-However, the storms also cools the water

-Hurricane Katrina led to less bleaching in the Florida Keys, 2005

22 Aug 2005

2 Sept 2005

Hurricanes: a mixed blessing

Sombrero Reef , FL DHW (degC week) SST (degC)

Dennis 9 July

Katrina 26 Aug Rita 21 Sept

Wilma 24 Oct

Each passing hurricane in 2005 cooled the water in the Florida Keys.

Can we protect corals from bleaching?

Shade reefs Cool reefs Improve water quality Reduce other stress Reduce overfishing

What Can YOU Do?

1. Learn more about coral reefs. 2. Spread the word. 25list.html

Bleaching 101: summary

- Corals are mineral, animal, AND vegetable - Hot water bleaches corals - Corals may die after bleaching - Diseases follow many warming/bleaching stress events