Following on from a previous article at Climate Shifts, a recent article published in PLoS One shows that corals are proving to be even more non-conformist than previously thought. Zoe Richards and co-authors from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found that ‘rare’ species of branching corals are able to cross breed with other branching corals to create hybrids, therefore avoiding probable extinction:

“Coral reefs worldwide face a variety of marine and land-based threats and hundreds of corals are now on the red list of threatened species. It is often assumed that rare coral species face higher risks of extinction than common species because they have very small effective population sizes, which implies that they may have limited genetic diversity and high levels of inbreeding and therefore be unable to adapt to changing conditions.

When we studied some particularly rare species of Acropora (staghorn corals), which you might expect to be highly vulnerable to extinction, we found some of them were actually hybrids – in other words they had cross-bred with other Acropora species.  This breaks all the traditional rules about what a species is. By hybridising with other species, these rare corals draw on genetic variation in other species, increasing their own potential to adapt to changing conditions.

When we looked at the genetic history of rare corals, we found that they exhibited unexpected patterns of genetic diversity.  This suggests that, rather than being the dying remnants of once-common species, they may actually be coral pioneers pushing into new environments and developing new traits by virtue of the interbreeding that has enabled them to survive there.

This is good news, to the extent that it suggests that corals may have evolved genetic strategies for survival in unusual niches – and may prove tougher to exterminate than many people feared. With such tricks up their sleeve, it is even possible that the rare corals of today could become the common corals of the future.”  (Link)

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