Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Curriculum in Environment and Ecology
Human-induced global change has caused rapid increases in ocean temperature (warming) and declines in seawater pH (acidification), and are expected to have negative impacts on tropical reef-building corals globally. Abnormally high seawater temperatures disrupt the symbiosis between corals and their algal endosymbiont in a process known as ‘coral bleaching.’ During such bleaching events, calcification rates decline and physiological processes deteriorate. Additionally, corals rely heavily on elevated seawater pH in order to support and maintain production of their calcium carbonate skeletons. Together, changes in ocean temperatures and seawater pH pose serious threats to coral reefs, foundational ecosystems that provide habitat for countless essential fisheries, while also acting as natural buffers from storms and providing major economic support for tropical coastal communities. Identifying how these global scale stressors impact Caribbean coral reefs is critical in understanding community composition and coral abundance on future reefs. This dissertation employs an interdisciplinary suite of techniques to assess the impacts of ocean acidification and warming on the growth and physiology of Caribbean corals to improve understandings of the responses of coral under projected global change, and provide a framework for similar future studies. Through the use of a meta-analysis (Chapter 1), I identified trends in coral calcification throughout the Greater Caribbean Sea in response to experimental ocean acidification and warming, and performed quantitative assessment of experimental design effects on coral calcification rates. I then conducted a 93- day simulated ocean acidification and warming mesocosm experiment to identify growth (Chapter 2, 4) and physiological (Chapter 3) responses of several species of common Caribbean corals. The results from this work highlight the diversity of responses of Caribbean corals to projected global change at individual and species levels, as well as between the coral host and algal endosymbiont. Overall, the variation in growth and physiological responses of these important Caribbean coral species under ocean acidification and warming is critical in predicting the future ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of Caribbean reefs as global change unfolds.