Corals have evolved four lifestyles, study says

September 28, 2012
Pillar coral, Dendrogyra cylindricus. Image: NOAA

(—A new study by Simon Fraser University researchers will help scientists better understand and manage coral reef diversity by simplifying how to categorize coral species based on aspects of growth and reproduction.

"We hope that understanding and reducing the complexity of coral life histories can help scientists, managers, and stakeholders make better predictions about how their reefs will fare in the face of , , and other human disturbances," says Emily Darling, a PhD student in the Earth to group with SFU Biological Sciences.

The research study, Evaluating life-history strategies of reef corals from species traits, was recently published in the journal, . Five people collaborated in the study, including three from SFU: Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, Isabelle M. Côté, and Darling.

Corals have evolved over millions of years and have a bewildering diversity of sizes, shapes, and colours. Darling and her group compiled existing information for 11 characteristics of corals and found these important reef architects have evolved four similar lifestyles despite their widespread distribution throughout the tropics.

The study identified four lifestyles to characterize the main ecological strategies of the corals:

· Competitive: Some corals are top competitors on reefs and can quickly grow and create canopies that over-top less competitive corals.

· Stress tolerant: Other corals that employ a different strategy and better cope with harsher environments by growing slowly and forming large colonies that can be hundreds of years old.

· Weedy: These pioneer species appear to be adapted for colonizing newly opened space on reefs by forming small colonies and investing in larvae through a type of reproduction called brooding.

· Generalist: Some species have a "grab bag" of characteristics and share features in common with all three of the other groups.

"What is also really interesting," says Darling, "is that corals appear to have evolved very similar ways of adapting to their environment as plants, despite being very different organisms."

Corals and plants are physically attached to their habitat and the research may explain why these organisms have evolved similar ways to cope with harsh conditions and periodic disturbances.

" are extremely biologically diverse, and this diversity provides a huge amount of free goods and services to people, not just in tropical areas but around the world," says Darling. "These goods and services include fish and seafood, coastal protection, and a huge tourism industry."

Explore further: Increasingly intense storms threaten coral

More information:

Related Stories

Depth important in generating reef diversity

June 10, 2010

( -- A study by University of Queensland researchers reveals that corals are more adapted to smaller ecological niches than previously thought, and provides new insights into the processes that generate diversity ...

Sponge competition may damage corals

May 3, 2011

Sponges are a group of common and diverse aquatic creatures, very abundant in coral reefs where they are an important part of the ecosystem. But new research has found that if the balance is disturbed, sponges can outcompete ...

Under climate change, winners and losers on the coral reef

April 12, 2012

As ocean temperatures rise, some species of corals are likely to succeed at the expense of others, according to a report published online on April 12 in the Cell Press journal Current Biology that details the first large-scale ...

Viruses linked to algae that control coral health

July 12, 2012

Scientists have discovered two viruses that appear to infect the single-celled microalgae that reside in corals and are important for coral growth and health, and they say the viruses could play a role in the serious decline ...

Recommended for you

New insight into leaf shape diversity

November 24, 2015

Many of us probably remember the punnett squares by which we were introduced to the idea of genetic inheritance in school: a dominant allele in each of my brown-eyed parents hides a recessive allele that explains my blue ...

The (fish) eyes have it

November 24, 2015

Understanding how fish "see" is helping a team of international scientists increase their knowledge of the Great Barrier Reef's biodiversity.

Winter season reverses outcome of fruit fly reproduction

November 24, 2015

Male fruit flies could find their chances of fathering offspring radically reduced if they are last in the queue to mate with promiscuous females before winter arrives, according to new University of Liverpool research.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.