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Heterotrophic plasticity and resilience in bleached corals


Mass coral bleaching events caused by elevated seawater temperatures1,2 have resulted in extensive coral mortality throughout the tropics over the past few decades3,4. With continued global warming, bleaching events are predicted to increase in frequency and severity, causing up to 60% coral mortality globally within the next few decades4,5,6. Although some corals are able to recover and to survive bleaching7,8, the mechanisms underlying such resilience are poorly understood. Here we show that the coral host has a significant role in recovery and resilience. Bleached and recovering Montipora capitata (branching) corals met more than 100% of their daily metabolic energy requirements by markedly increasing their feeding rates and CHAR (per cent contribution of heterotrophically acquired carbon to daily animal respiration), whereas Porites compressa (branching) and Porites lobata (mounding) corals did not. These findings suggest that coral species with high-CHAR capability during bleaching and recovery, irrespective of morphology, will be more resilient to bleaching events over the long term, could become the dominant coral species on reefs, and may help to safeguard affected reefs from potential local and global extinction.

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Figure 1: Coral bleaching and recovery.
Figure 2: Heterotrophically and photoautotrophically acquired carbon.

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We thank the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and P. Jokiel for local assistance; M. Lesser for the use of metabolism chambers and for comments; T. Pease for advice on lipid extractions; P. Petraitis for statistical advice; R. Langston for plankton collections; J. Bauer, D. Gleason and D. Alsdorf for comments; L. M. Grottoli for editorial assistance; and the University of Pennsylvania. Funding was provided by the Mellon Foundation (to A.G.G.), William Penn Fellowship (to L.J.R.), the Chemical Oceanography Program of the US National Science Foundation (to A.G.G.), and the Biological Oceanography Program of the US National Science Foundation (to A.G.G.). Author Contributions All authors contributed equally to this work.

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Correspondence to Andréa G. Grottoli.

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Grottoli, A., Rodrigues, L. & Palardy, J. Heterotrophic plasticity and resilience in bleached corals. Nature 440, 1186–1189 (2006).

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