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May 05, 2014 08:16 AM EDT

Corals Adapt To Rising Ocean Temperatures, Study

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Corals are able to adapt to rising ocean temperatures, according to a Stanford University study.

"The temperature of coral reefs is variable, so it stands to reason that corals should have some capacity to respond to different heat levels," Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said in a statement. "Our study shows they can, and it may help them in the future as the ocean warms."

Coral reefs, also known as rainforests of the sea, provide food and shelter to several aquatic animals. Although coral reefs constitute less than one percent of the ocean floor, they support an estimated 25 percent of all marine life including more than 4,000 species of fish, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

 Rising global temperatures are threatening the survival of these corals. The new study showed that some coral species can endure hot water 50 times faster through regulation of internal function than adaptation through evolutionary changes.

For the study, researchers transported some corals from a warm pool to a cold pool and vice versa. They found that corals from the cold waters adapted to living in hot water. Even though these corals had half of heat tolerant levels observed in corals that had been living in the hot pool all along, they quickly obtained the same heat tolerance that could have been attained through evolution after many generations.

Researchers said that similar to humans, corals contain adaptive genes that can be adjusted (on and off) depending on external conditions. The corals used in the study were found to regulate certain genes, depending on the local temperature.

"These results tell us that both nature and nurture play a role in deciding how heat-tolerant a coral colony is," Palumbi said. "Nurture, the effect of environment, can change heat tolerance much more quickly - within the lifetime of one coral rather than over many generations."

Palumbi said that although corals have shown their ability to fight slight rise in temperatures, their heat-adaptive characteristics cannot successfully combat indefinite temperature increases, ocean acidification and pollution.

The finding is published in the journal Science.

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