Corals occupy one of the basal branches in the tree of life and have long been considered to be among the simplest of animals. However, many aspects of coral biology suggest that the coral polyp is far from simple. Corals have evolved a mass spawning strategy that is unique within the animal kingdom. Synchronised breeding among coral species provides opportunities for occasional hybridisation, with important implications for species diversity and resilience. Corals form partnerships with symbiotic algae, an association that underpins their success as reef builders. Evidence of flexibility in these partnerships highlights options for resilience that are becoming significant as climate changes. Recent discoveries of further complexity in coral symbioses, incorporating 3-way interactions with bacterial communities, and of elements of innate immunity are revealing previously unknown mechanisms of disease resistance. Given predictions of warming and acidifying oceans, emerging diseases, and deteriorating water quality, how resourceful is the coral polyp? What is the extent of its armoury and what chance for survival as we push the boundaries of its habitat?
Professor Willis, along with colleagues and students, has been unravelling the secrets of the coral polyp for the past two decades. She will highlight aspects of coral biology and life history that influence responses to environmental stressors. Her talk will touch on key research published by her group in diverse areas from mass spawning and the evolutionary implications of hybridisation, to flexibility in algal endosymbioses and innate immunity, providing insights into the potential of corals to rise to the challenge of climate change.