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How coral reef fish survive in the world’s warmest waters

A new study has identified unexpected adaptations in coral reef fish in the Arabian Gulf, which survive in some of the world’s warmest waters. 

Led by John Burt from New York University Abu Dhabi and Jacob Johansen from the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, the study found that these fish maintain efficient oxygen supply and performance despite elevated temperatures. 

Contrary to theoretical predictions, the fish do not exhibit reduced sizes due to metabolic oxygen-supply limitations.

Focus of the research 

“As oceans warm, our ability to sustainably manage and protect important species depends on how well we can predict temperature-driven processes operating at individual, population, and community levels,” wrote the researchers.

“Many aquatic ectotherms, especially those adapted for the Arctic and tropics, are expected to be highly sensitive to temperature increases beyond those in which they have evolved.” 

“Given the critical importance of aquatic resources for human survival, the likely consequences of rising temperatures for species fitness and productivity are vigorously debated.”

Adaptative pathways in coral reef fish

The study authors noted that leading theories project limited adaptive capacity of tropical fishes and substantial size reductions in the coming decades due to mass-scaling limitations of oxygen supply in larger individuals.

“Using the world’s hottest coral reefs in the Persian/Arabian Gulf as a natural laboratory for ocean warming – where species have survived >35.0 °C summer temperatures for over 6000 years and are 14-40% smaller at maximum size compared to cooler locations – we identified two adaptive pathways that enhance survival at elevated temperatures across 10 metabolic and swimming performance metrics.”

Resilience to climate change 

The study challenges the “shrinking of fishes phenomenon” and suggests that the real issue might be the balance between energy intake and expenditure. 

The experts compared two fish species, Lutjanus ehrenbergii and Scolopsis ghanam, from the Arabian Gulf with those from the cooler Gulf of Oman. 

The findings suggest these fish possess resilience to climate change, highlighting that smaller individuals might be evolutionarily favored at high temperatures.

“The hottest coral reefs in the world are an ideal natural laboratory to explore the future impact of rising water temperatures on fishes,” said Burt.

“Our findings indicate that some fish species are more resilient to climate change than previously understood and help explain why smaller individuals are evolutionarily favored at high temperatures.”

“This has significant implications for our understanding of the future of marine biodiversity in a continuously warming world.”

The future for coral reef fish

The warming of oceans is expected to have drastic effects on marine life and the fishing industry, potentially disrupting ecosystems and economic structures. 

Current scientific models predict that by 2050, coral reef fish could shrink by up to 39 percent due to increasing temperatures. 

However, this study’s results suggest that some species may adapt better than anticipated, potentially altering our understanding of marine biodiversity‘s future in a warming world.

Coral reef fish of the Arabian Sea

The Arabian Sea is home to a vibrant marine ecosystem that hosts a rich diversity of coral reef fish

Coral reefs, known as the “rainforests of the sea,” provide habitats for over one million marine species worldwide. 

Coral reef fish in the Arabian Gulf are a vital part of the region’s marine ecosystem. These fish include groupers, snappers, and parrotfish. Each species plays a unique role in maintaining the health of the coral reefs.

The Arabian Gulf’s coral reefs are adapted to some of the harshest marine conditions, including high salinity and temperature extremes. 

Despite these challenges, the reefs support a rich diversity of fish. These fish contribute to the reef’s ecological balance by participating in processes like grazing on algae, which helps prevent algae overgrowth and allows corals to thrive.

Human activities, such as overfishing, coastal development, and pollution, pose significant threats to these coral reefs and their fish populations. 

Conservation efforts are crucial to protect these ecosystems. Measures include establishing marine protected areas, enforcing sustainable fishing practices, and reducing pollution.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.


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