Research Article

Breakdown in spawning synchrony: A silent threat to coral persistence

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Science  06 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6457, pp. 1002-1007
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax0110

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Invisible threat

Our changing climate is a threat to corals, causing disfiguring bleaching and mortality to reefs that once teemed with life. Shlesinger and Loya alert us to an equally dangerous yet nearly invisible hazard to coral: loss of breeding synchrony (see the Perspective by Fogarty and Marhaver). They found that environmental changes have resulted in shifts in the timing of gamete release in several species of broadcast-spawning corals in the Red Sea. Similar changes are likely occurring globally. Such a loss of spawning synchrony could result in reproductive failure, a much less obvious but no less insidious threat to coral reefs.

Science, this issue p. 1002; see also p. 987


The impacts of human and natural disturbances on coral reefs are typically quantified through visible damage (e.g., reduced coral coverage as a result of bleaching events), but changes in environmental conditions may also cause damage in less visible ways. Despite the current paradigm, which suggests consistent, highly synchronized spawning events, corals that reproduce by broadcast spawning are particularly vulnerable because their reproductive phenology is governed by environmental cues. Here, we quantify coral spawning intensity during four annual reproductive seasons, alongside laboratory analyses at the polyp, colony, and population levels, and we demonstrate that, compared with historical data, several species from the Red Sea have lost their reproductive synchrony. Ultimately, such a synchrony breakdown reduces the probability of successful fertilization, leading to a dearth of new recruits, which may drive aging populations to extinction.

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