Letter | Published:

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

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 375379 (2015) | Download Citation


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    & White-band disease and the changing face of Caribbean coral reefs. Hydrobiologia 460, 25–38 (2001).

  2. 2.

    Coral community dynamics at multiple scales. Coral Reefs 21, 13–23 (2002).

  3. 3.

    Proc 4th Int. Coral Reef Symp. Vol. 2, 7–14 (Marine Sciences Center, University of the Philippines, 1981).

  4. 4.

    et al. Coral Reefs and Climate Change: Science and Management 111–128 (American Geophysical Union, 2006).

  5. 5.

    et al. Global coral disease prevalence associated with sea temperature anomalies and local factors. Dis. Aquat. Organ. 100, 249–261 (2012).

  6. 6.

    , & Eocene Caribbean reef corals: A unique fauna from the Gatuncillo Formation of Panama. J. Paleontol. 66(4), 570–594 (1992).

  7. 7.

    , & An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. Nature 451, 279–283 (2008).

  8. 8.

    , , , & Acropora palmata The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014.2. (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 2008);

  9. 9.

    Endangered and threatened species: Final listing determinations for elkhorn and staghorn coral. Fed. Reg. 71, 26852–26861 (2006).

  10. 10.

    , , & Relationships between the history of thermal stress and the relative risk of Caribbean corals. Ecology 95, 1981–1994 (2014).

  11. 11.

    & Type II white-band disease. Rev. Biol. Trop. 46, 199–203 (1998).

  12. 12.

    & Bacterial community structure associated with white band disease in the elkhorn coral Acropora palmata determined using culture-independent 16S rRNA techniques. Dis. Aquat. Organ. 69, 79–88 (2006).

  13. 13.

    , & Experimental antibiotic treatment identifies potential pathogens of white band disease in the endangered Caribbean coral Acropora cervicornis. Proc. R. Soc. B 281, 20140094 (2014).

  14. 14.

    , & Evaluating patterns of a white-band disease (WBD) outbreak in Acropora palmata using spatial analysis: A comparison of transect and colony clustering. PLoS ONE 6, e21830 (2011).

  15. 15.

    , , , & The role of microorganisms in coral health, disease and evolution. Nature Rev. Microbiol. 5, 355–362 (2007).

  16. 16.

    , , , & Are infectious diseases really killing corals? Alternative interpretations of the experimental and ecological data. J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 346, 36–44 (2007).

  17. 17.

    & Caribbean coral diseases: Primary transmission or secondary infection? Glob. Change Biol. 18, 3529–3535 (2012).

  18. 18.

    et al. Coral disease following massive bleaching in 2005 causes 60% decline in coral cover on reefs in the US Virgin Islands. Coral Reefs 28, 925–937 (2009).

  19. 19.

    et al. Coral thermal tolerance shaped by local adaptation of photosymbionts. Nature Clim. Change 2, 116–120 (2012).

  20. 20.

    & Water-flow rates and passive diffusion partially explain differential survival of corals during the 1998 bleaching event. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 212, 301–304 (2001).

  21. 21.

    et al. Climate warming and disease risk for terrestrial and marine biota. Science 296, 2158–2162 (2002).

  22. 22.

    White-band disease in Acropora palmata: Implications for the structure and growth of shallow reefs. Bull. Mar. Sci. 32, 639–643 (1982).

  23. 23.

    et al. Multiple stressors of ocean ecosystems in the 21st century: Projections with CMIP5 models. Biogeosciences 10, 6225–6245 (2013).

  24. 24.

    et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. 108 D14, 4407 (2003).

  25. 25.

    , , & in Oceanography from Space: Revisited (eds Barale, V., Gower, J. F. R. & Alberotanza, L.) 323–341 (Springer, 2010).

  26. 26.

    et al. Collinearity: A review of methods to deal with it and a simulation study evaluating their performance. Ecography 36, 027–046 (2013).

  27. 27.

    Boosted trees for ecological modeling and prediction. Ecology 88, 243–251 (2007).

  28. 28.

    , & A working guide to boosted regression trees. J. Animal Ecol. 77, 802–813 (2008).

  29. 29.

    Generalized Boosted Regression Models Version. 1. Doc. R Package ‘gbm’ Vol. 7 (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2006);

  30. 30.

    R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2014);

Download references


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.

Author information


  1. Department of Biological Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology, 150 West University Boulevard, Melbourne, Florida 32901, USA

    • C. J. Randall
    •  & R. van Woesik


  1. Search for C. J. Randall in:

  2. Search for R. van Woesik in:


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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. J. Randall.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading