How Polygamy Could Save the Great Barrier Reef

How Polygamy Could Save the Great Barrier Reef

Why you should care

Because saving the ocean can be sexy too.

Well-intentioned, but ultimately smothering, marine scientists have had very conventional theories of what a young coral’s relationship should look like. The understanding was that blossoming coral caught the eye of some handsome (and providing) microalgae, created a symbiotic relationship with them and, then, as adults, remained strictly paired to that type of algae for life. It sounds so Leave It to Beaver.

But some rebellious coral had other plans for their helicopter (and Australian) researchers, who discovered that …

Some adult corals can be promiscuous — oh, the scandal! — and swap between algae partners later in life.

So, yeah, the relationship between coral and algae has never technically been of a sexual nature, notes momentary buzzkill and University of Melbourne scientist Madeleine van Oppen, a co-author on the study. “The word ‘promiscuity’ fits better,” she says. Nadine Boulotte, a Southern Cross Unviersity postgrad who led the research, called this new terminology a “paradigm shift” in how coral was typically understood. The findings dispelled the notion that coral reefs were strictly confined to monogamous symbiotic relationships, a crucial discovery because it opens the door for adult coral to bind with algae that is better suited to protect it from the mass coral bleaching episodes that have recently rocked reefs across the globe. That’s right — a little bit of polygamy may just keep those gorgeous underwater rain forests from going extinct.

This intimate knowledge has added urgency now, although it may not be one size fits all. In one recent survey, hundreds of reefs were studied, and 93 percent showed some sign of coral bleaching — when coral dies due to large, sudden shifts in temperature (uh, thanks for nothing, global warming). If coral could be taught to change its algae partners to ones that pack protection, scientists believe they’d have a better chance of surviving such episodes, maintaining their ability to provide homes and sustenance for countless species of fish and marine life that otherwise would be stranded in the open ocean. “Some algal types are known to provide higher heat tolerance to the coral than others,” says van Oppen. The only problem? The promiscuous coral discovered in the study were only surveyed in an “unusual” reef location. “It’s the southernmost reef in the world,” she adds, so the next step is figuring out if coral in more tropical climes feel like getting a little freaky too.

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