Scientists always worry about the effect warming temperatures will have on Earth’s wildlife, especially sea life. Well, they won’t have to worry about certain coral populations.

Some of them already have genetic variants vital to surviving in warm ocean waters according to an international team of scientists.

How did scientists find out certain coral are hardier in warmer water?

The team of scientists crossed corals from warmer areas of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia with corals from cooler waters about 300 miles to the south. They found the coral larvae with parents from the north were up to 10 times as likely to survive warmer waters than those with parents from the south. The temperature difference between the two areas was about 2 degrees Celsius.

Scientists identified the process responsible for the heat tolerance and showed it could evolve rapidly from existing genetic variation.

“Our research found that corals do not have to wait for new mutations to appear. Averting coral extinction may start with something as simple as an exchange of coral immigrants to spread already existing genetic variants,” said Mikhail Matz, an associate professor of integrative biology at The University of Texas at Austin, in a statement.

Coral reef with diver

How we can make a difference

The “exchange of coral immigrants” doesn’t have to happen naturally. We can move adult corals with the genetic variants into areas where they are not present.

Coral reefs are a vital part of the ocean ecosystem and have been badly damaged due to rising sea surface temperatures. Mother nature is one of the best forces at adapting to changing conditions. With a little help from us, coral reefs could be able to face the challenge of warming ocean waters and win.

“Averting coral extinction can begin with something as simple as exchange of coral immigrants across latitudes, which will happen naturally through larval dispersal but can be jump-started by humans moving adult corals,” Matz. “This is occasion for hope and optimism about coral reefs and the marine life that thrive there.

Today’s news is hopeful, but more work needs to be done. Science is awesome, but it’s ever evolving. Scientists will need to confirm the role of mitochondria in heat tolerance. Plus, more research needs to be done on the best way to get these gene variants to other reefs. Reefs with these heat tolerant genes need to be protected so they can spread the variation to other reefs naturally.

The study was published in the journal Science.

Image credits: UT Austin

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