Can corals adapt to climate change?

Tabletop coral in the Cook Islands.

Credit: Rachael Bay/UC Davis

Cool-water corals can adapt to a slightly warmer ocean, but only if global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. That's according to a study published November 1 in the journal Science Advances of genetic adaptation and the likely effects of future warming on tabletop corals in the Cook Islands.

The study found that some corals in the normally cool waters of the Cook Islands carry genetic variants that predispose them to heat tolerance. This could help the population adapt more quickly to rising temperatures. But the preliminary results show they may not adapt quickly enough to outpace climate change.

"These corals aren't going to adapt at an unlimited rate," said lead author Rachael Bay, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Davis. "Keeping these reefs around requires curbing emissions."

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Rachael A. Bay, Noah H. Rose, Cheryl A. Logan and Stephen R. Palumbi, Genomic models predict successful coral adaptation if future ocean warming rates are reduced, Science Advances  DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701413