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Is climate change likely to increase disease in corals?

ne Science Long-term Monitoring Program on 48 reefs from a 1,500-kilometer stretch of the Great Barrier Reef from 1998 to 2004 at a depth of six to nine meters. Divers counted the number of infected colonies on each reef. Coral cover, the amount of the bottom with living corals, was measured from videos taken of the reefs.

The researchers then evaluated the relationship between the occurrence of white syndrome and three variables: number of WSSTAs occurring during the previous 52 weeks, coral cover, and the interaction between the two. They found that the third variable showed a statistically significant correlation with number of white syndrome cases, indicating that the presence of both conditions (temperature anomalies and high coral cover) creates the conditions in which white syndrome outbreaks are most likely to occur. In other words, WSSTAs were a necessary but not sufficient condition for white syndrome outbreaks, whereas the combination of heat stress and a dense colony was deadly.

What does this mean for corals and the ecosystem they support? If global warming increases the incidence of warm temperature anomalies in tropical oceans the years ahead, these results suggest that corals in high-cover areas will be increasingly vulnerable to white disease. If the effect is large enough, the tightly woven web of life within coral reefs could begin to unravel, potentially transforming habitats that were once among the planet's richest ecosystems into underwater wastelands. This strong evidence for a link among a warming ocean, coral density, and white syndrome provides a rich foundation for further work to understand the spread of coral disease in the Great Barrier Reef. It also provides valuable insights into marine epidemiology that could be of much value in investigating and potentially mitigating other devastating global warming-related disease outbreaks in the world's vast and vulnerable oceans.


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Contact: Natalie Bouaravong
press@plos.org
415-568-3445
Public Library of Science
7-May-2007


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