Heterotrophic plasticity and resilience in bleached corals

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Mass coral bleaching events caused by elevated seawater temperatures1,2have 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 decades4-6. 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 recoveringMontipora 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), whereasPorites compressa(branching) andPorites 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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