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Interpreting the sign of coral bleaching as friend vs. foe


David J. Suggett, e-mail:


Coral bleaching is a major concern to researchers, conservationists and the general public worldwide. To date, much of the high profile attention for bleaching has coincided with major environmental impacts and for many the term coral bleaching is synonymously associated with coral mortality (so-called ‘lethal’ bleaching episodes). While this synonymous association has undoubtedly been key in raising public support, it carries unfair representation: nonlethal bleaching is, and always has been, a phenomenon that effectively occurs regularly in nature as corals acclimatize to regular periodic changes in growth environment (days, seasons etc). In addition, corals can exhibit sublethal bleaching during extreme environmental conditions whereby mortality does not occur and corals can potentially subsequently recover once ambient environmental conditions return. Perhaps not surprisingly it is the frequency and extent of these non and sublethal processes that yield key evidence as to how coral species and reef systems will likely withstand environmental and thus climatic change. Observations of non and sublethal bleaching (and subsequent recovery) are arguably not as readily reported as those of lethal bleaching since (1) the convenient tools used to quantify bleaching yield major ambiguity (and hence high potential for misidentification) as to the severity of bleaching; and (2) lethal bleaching events inevitably receive higher profile (media) attention and so are more readily reported. Under-representation of non and sublethal bleaching signs may over-classify the severity of bleaching, under-estimate the potential resilience of reefs against environmental change, and thus ultimately limit (if not depreciate) the validity and effectiveness of reef management policies and practices. While bleaching induced coral mortality must remain our key concern it must be better placed within the context of bleaching signs that do not result in a long-term loss of reef viability.

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