Corals can cope with climate change better than previously thought, according to new research.

Scientists at James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute studied 95 traits of coral heredity across 19 species and published their findings in scientific journal Wiley.

PhD candidate and lead author, Kevin Bairos-Novak, said that how the parent corals survive under environmental stress is likely to be passed down through their genes to their offspring.


“The fossil record tells us that times of rapid environmental change are a major challenge to life, and can lead to very high rates of extinction,” he said.


“They are good at passing beneficial traits onto the next generation and the next – helping them cope with the stresses they face.

“And this is what may help them navigate the next few decades better than we previously thought.”

The scientists discovered corals that are better than average at survival, growth and resisting bleaching stress are good at passing on those traits, despite increasing temperatures.

However, their research does come with a major caveat.

The authors also warn that if climate change is too fast, there won’t be enough time for evolution to generate new variations to cope with even more stressful conditions.

“Though temperature increases don’t appear to influence the ability of corals to pass on adaptive traits, the damage that we are already seeing to coral reefs from climate change tells us that the current rates of change are too fast for coral adaptation to keep up,” said JCU co-author Associate Professor Mia Hoogenboom.

They said if temperatures can be stabilised, more coral species will have a shot at adapting to warmer temperatures.


Main points

  • Research shows corals can pass on their resilience to warming temperatures to their offspring

  • Scientists studied 95 traits of heritability across 19 species of reef-building corals 

  • Evolutionary adaptation requires time and will require a steadying of the current global warming rate
However, our findings show that corals are fighters.
Kevin Bairos-Novak
JCU PhD candidate and lead author