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Australian researchers find smaller corals are more resistant to disease

01-18-2011 16:49 BJT

CANBERRA, Jan. 18 (Xinhua) -- New Australian research on Tuesday found coral reefs will survive warmer ocean temperatures brought on by climate change, but they will be very different.

According to Professor Peter Mumby and Dr Laith Yakob from the University of Queensland in Australia, small short lived corals, which are taking over from large corals in some parts of the world, are more resistant to disease.

For several decades, marine researchers have observed warmer sea temperatures devastate large, ancient corals such as staghorns (Acropora) and boulder or dome corals (Montastraea), particularly in the Caribbean.

However, in many areas, these corals have been replaced by smaller, faster growing corals such as Porities and Agaricia.

"It's like having an oak tree forest replaced by a forest of scrubby young plants," Mumby told ABC Science on Tuesday.

A model developed by the two researchers, and based on a 10- year study in the Caribbean, has shown diseases would not spread as quickly or kill as extensively in the small fast lived corals in that area.

Mumby said this is due to the fact that for an outbreak to occur, a coral colony must survive for long enough to become infected and in turn infect other colonies. In short-lived colonies, the disease does not have enough time to spread.

The researchers emphasize that the research is only based on Caribbean corals. The small corals of the Indo-Pacific, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, have high rates of disease transmission and so the findings may not apply there.

"It almost sounds like a good news story but it isn't really," Mumby said, adding that having reefs built by these small corals is not a good thing, because they support less fish.

Commenting on the paper, Professor Bette Willis from James Cook University said large, complex corals provide better habitats for associated reef fish and invertebrates.

Mumby said their findings are a 'cautionary tale' to other scientists.

"We can't blindly apply what we know and extrapolate into the future. If we want to give realistic predictions and protect the benefits that people derive from those sorts of reefs, we have to have a good understanding of how those reefs are going to behave," he said.

"As we transform ecosystems through climate change, they become completely new and novel ecosystems. We can't apply the lessons of the past."

The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Editor:Zheng Limin |Source: Xinhua

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