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Coral reefs can survive, if given the chance to evolve

Although coral reefs cover less than one percent of the Earth’s surface, they are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on our planet. Moreover, they are providing a habitat for about 25 percent of all marine life, and are supporting over one billion people with food, income, and coastal protection. 

Unfortunately, nearly 75 percent of coral reefs are currently threatened by climate change and human activities. Without sustained efforts to protect them, an estimated 99 percent of these reefs will vanish by the end of the century.

However, according to a new study led by an international team of experts, coral reefs could adapt to climate change if given the opportunity to evolve. 

“Evolution happens when corals that have already adapted to new environmental conditions breed with corals that have not yet adapted,” explained study co-author Malin Pinsky, an associate professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University. “As ocean temperatures rise, we need to keep corals in hotter waters healthy and protected so they can reproduce and spread their heat tolerance to other coral reef areas.” 

Thus, the researchers advocate for a conservation approach which protects coral reefs at local, regional, and global scales in ways that allow heat tolerance to spread. 

“The best part about these results is that they underscore the importance of our actions at local scales – we don’t have to just sit back and watch coral reefs suffer as our climate changes,” said study lead author Madhavi Colton, the former executive director of the Coral Reef Alliance. “This study provides guidance on how to design local conservation solutions that will have real, lasting impacts well into the future.” 

“We simply cannot afford to lose coral reefs,” added study co-author Helen Fox, the conservation science director at the Coral Reef Alliance. “It is imperative that we do what we can to save coral reefs now because we will be faced with combined global economic, humanitarian, and biodiversity crises if we do not,” she concluded. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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