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The Future of Earth's Coral Reefs Debated in Science

Pandolfi, J.M., Connolly, S.R., Marshall, D.J. and Cohen, A.L. 2011b. Response. Science 334: 1495-1496.
In a previous review, we discussed the paper of Pandolfi et al. (2011a) that was published in Science on 22 July 2011, wherein we briefly reported the many ways in which they suggested Earth's coral reefs might successfully respond to the dual challenge of projected rapid increases in temperature and ocean acidification. As might have been expected, however, their optimistic analysis was not well received by the world's climate alarmists, who in the 16 December 2011 issue of Science - via the persons of Hoegh-Guldberg et al. (2011) - cast many aspersions on it. However, Pandolfi et al. (2011b) were given the opportunity of responding to them and deflated their arguments.

Specifically, the four researchers begin by rebutting Hoegh-Guldberg et al.'s claim that evolutionary responses of corals to global warming are highly improbable in light of the warming's IPCC-projected rapidity, noting that "the hypothesis that adaptation cannot occur over decadal time scales has been shown repeatedly to be incorrect." More specifically, they state that research has shown that "numerous and complex physiological, metabolic, and morphological changes can occur rapidly and repeatedly among independently evolving lineages," citing in this regard the studies of Hendry and Kinnison (1999), Levinton et al. (2003) and Tobler et al. (2011).

Pandolfi and colleagues next rebut Hoegh-Guldberg et al.'s contention that characteristics of endosymbiosis will impede adaptation in corals. This they do by noting that "endosymbionts and hosts, if anything, evolve more rapidly than their free-living counterparts," citing in this regard the research findings of Woolfit and Bromham (2003) and Pal et al. (2007).

Finally, it should also be noted that numerous research studies bear both experimental and observational witness to the ability of a wide range of organisms (both aquatic and terrestrial) to rapidly evolve to meet the challenges of rapid environmental change (see, for example, the several reviews we have posted under the heading of Evolution in our Topical Archive here, here, and here). Sadly, however, Earth's plants and animals are not that well equipped to deal with the more direct assaults of humanity upon their surroundings, which is the realm wherein our efforts to protect them could most profitably be directed.

Additional References
Hendry, A.P. and Kinnison, M.T. 1999. The pace of modern life: Measuring rates of contemporary microevolution. Evolution 53: 1637-1653.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Ortiz, J.C. and Dove, S. 2011. The future of coral reefs. Science 334: 1494-1495.

Levinton, J.S., Suatoni, E., Wallace, W., Junkins, R., Kelaher, B. and Allen, B.J. 2003. Rapid loss of genetically based resistance to metals after the cleanup of a Superfund site. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science USA 100: 9889-9891.

Pal, C., Macia, M.D., Oliver, A., Schachar, I. and Buckling, A. 2007. Coevolution with viruses drives the evolution of bacterial mutation rates. Nature 450: 1079-1081.

Pandolfi, J.M., Connolly, S.R., Marshall, D.J. and Cohen, A.L. 2011a. Projecting coral reef futures under global warming and ocean acidification. Science 333: 418-422.

Tobler, M., Palacios, M., Chapman, L.J., Mitrofanov, I., Bierbach, D., Plath, M., Arias-Rodriguez, L., García de León, F.J. and Mateos M. 2011. Evolution in extreme environments: Replicated phenotypic differentiation in livebearing fish inhabiting sulfidic springs. Evolution 65: 2213-2228.

Woolfit, M. and Bromham, L. 2003. Increased rates of sequence evolution in endosymbiotic bacteria and fungi with small effective population sizes. Molecular Biology and Evolution 20: 1545-1555.

Archived 18 January 2012