Skeletal records of bleaching reveal different thermal thresholds of Pacific coral reef assemblages

Nathaniel R. Mollica, Anne L. Cohen, Alice E. Alpert, Hannah C. Barkley, Russell E. Brainard, Jessica E. Carilli, Thomas Mario De Carlo, Elizabeth J. Drenkard, Pat Lohmann, Sangeeta Mangubhai, Kathryn R. Pietro, Hanny E. Rivera, Randi D. Rotjan, Celina Scott-Buechler, Andrew R. Solow, Charles W. Young

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Ocean warming is negatively impacting coral reef ecosystems and considerable effort is currently invested in projecting coral reef futures under 21st century climate change. A limiting factor in these projections is lack of quantitative data on the thermal thresholds of different reef communities, due in large part to spatial and temporal gaps in bleaching observations. Here we apply a coral bleaching proxy, skeletal stress bands, to reconstruct the history of bleaching on eight coral reefs in the central equatorial Pacific (CEP) and use this information to constrain the thermal thresholds of their coral communities. First, three genera of massive corals collected on both Pacific and Caribbean reefs are used to derive a calibration between the proportion of corals that form stress bands during a bleaching event, and the total observed bleaching incidence in the community of mixed coral taxa. The correlation is highly significant, indicating that stress bands in massive corals reflect community-level bleaching severity (R2 = 0.945, p < 0.001). We applied the calibration to stress band records from eight Pacific reefs, reconstructing their bleaching histories over the period 1982 to 2015. A percentile-based method of estimating thermal stress (Degree Heating Weeks) for CEP reefs was developed and applied. Comparing the level of thermal stress experienced by each coral community during each event with the reconstructed bleaching response, we characterized the thermal sensitivities of each reef community and quantified the thermal threshold (b½) at which 50% of the coral community bleached. Our analysis reveals a unique non-linear thermal response curve for each reef. The most thermally tolerant reefs in the study (Jarvis and Kanton Islands) experienced 50% bleaching at seven to nine times more thermal stress than did the least resistant reef in the study (Maiana Island). An exploration of the potential drivers of thermal tolerance revealed a strong correlation between b½ and the history of thermal stress events in each reef system. Thermal tolerance was also correlated with concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrate in the water column and with estimates of coral energetic reserve.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)743-757
Number of pages15
JournalCoral Reefs
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2 2019


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