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Redundancy offers reassurance to reefs

07
Mar 2018

Posted By

ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies

A Boeing 747 can fly safely on just one engine, so with four it enjoys a considerable level of redundancy. Engineers purposefully build this type of redundancy into machines to reduce the chance of failure, or to increase reliability.

The availability of ‘back-ups’ (functional redundancy) can also enhance the reliability of coral reef ecosystems. In a study published in PNAS, researchers examined 12 distinct regions or ‘biogeographical provinces’ across the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and used important functional traits of reef-building corals to measure redundancy.

They found that provinces with larger numbers of species have a greater range of traits and a greater similarity, or redundancy, among species. This means that when stress strikes, there are fail-safes within the community that can potentially step-up into similar roles to keep the community intact and functioning. The study also identifies locations across the world with limited numbers of functionally important species. Coral reefs in these regions are like Boeing 747s with just one engine, and their lack of redundancy can leave them more vulnerable to failure.

Importantly, functional redundancy is of little use if each redundant component fails at the same time. Nevertheless, such a scenario is becoming more likely as the stress put on reef systems by climate change increases.

The study therefore considered how the redundant players within the reef community respond to stress. The greater the variety of responses to stress or the differences in ‘regeneration capacities,’ the less vulnerable the reef becomes.

The authors suggest that the goal of returning degraded reefs to their original state is no longer an option in many cases. Instead, the global challenge in the face of climate change is to maintain reefs in a way that preserves their ecological functions.

The paper “Biogeographical disparity in the functional diversity and redundancy of corals” is now available online.

Authors listed in this publication: Mike McWilliam, Mia O. Hoogenboom, Andrew H. Baird, Chao-Yang Kuo, Joshua S. Madin and Terry P. Hughes

The functional diversity of corals on the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies/ Mike McWilliam
The functional diversity of corals on the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies/ Mike McWilliam

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au