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Ultraviolet radiation and coral bleaching

Abstract

EPISODES of coral bleaching resulting from dissociation of endosymbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) from host coral tissues have occurred with increasing frequency over the past decade on reefs throughout the tropics1,2. These episodes have usually been attributed to increases in sea water temperatures3–10, but the mass bleaching events that occurred throughout the Caribbean during 1987 and 1990 were not readily explained by temperature alone11,12. An additional factor that may have contributed to these bleaching episodes is ultraviolet radiation in the 280–400-nm band. At many localities where bleaching occurred in 1987 and 1990, sea conditions were described as extremely calm with exceptionally clear water13. In the absence of suspended organic and inorganic matter in the water column, higher than average intensities of ultraviolet radiation probably reached all depths within the photic zone for several consecutive months. Evidence for a possible link between ultraviolet radiation and coral bleaching has not been forthcoming2. Here we report results of a field experiment showing that, irrespective of high water temperatures, short-term (three weeks) increases in ultraviolet radiation of a magnitude possible under calm, clear water column conditions can readily induce bleaching in reef-building corals.

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