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Contemporary white-band disease in Caribbean corals driven by climate change


Over the past 40 years, two of the dominant reef-building corals in the Caribbean, Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis, have experienced unprecedented declines1,2. That loss has been largely attributed to a syndrome commonly referred to as white-band disease1,3. Climate change-driven increases in sea surface temperature (SST) have been linked to several coral diseases4,5, yet, despite decades of research, the attribution of white-band disease to climate change remains unknown. Here we hindcasted the potential relationship between recent ocean warming and outbreaks of white-band disease on acroporid corals. We quantified eight SST metrics, including rates of change in SST and contemporary thermal anomalies, and compared them with records of white-band disease on A. palmata and A. cervicornis from 473 sites across the Caribbean, surveyed from 1997 to 2004. The results of our models suggest that decades-long climate-driven changes in SST, increases in thermal minima, and the breach of thermal maxima have all played significant roles in the spread of white-band disease. We conclude that white-band disease has been strongly coupled with thermal stresses associated with climate change, which has contributed to the regional decline of these once-dominant reef-building corals.

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Figure 1: Caribbean white-band disease on Acropora species.
Figure 2: Caribbean SSTs.
Figure 3: Partial dependency plots.

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We thank the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Program for training volunteers, conducting surveys, and making data freely available for use, especially R. Ginsburg, J. Lang and P. Kramer. Thanks also to S. J. van Woesik and J. E. Speaks for editorial comments, to C. Cacciapaglia for assistance with coding, to R. Aronson for valuable discussions, and to A. G. Jordán-Garza for providing a photograph of A. cervicornis. We acknowledge NSF OCE-1219804, awarded to R.v.W., for funding. This paper is Contribution No. 126 from the Institute for Research on Global Climate Change at the Florida Institute of Technology.

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C.J.R. and R.v.W. conceived and designed the experiments; C.J.R. performed the experiments, coded the models and analysed the data; both authors wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to C. J. Randall.

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Randall, C., van Woesik, R. Contemporary white-band disease in Caribbean corals driven by climate change. Nature Clim Change 5, 375–379 (2015).

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