Recurrent bleaching events since the early 1980’s have led to enduring ecosystems changes throughout the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea and the increasing frequency and intensity of these events is likely to have a profound impact on the life-history and distribution of reef communities. Exposure to thermal stress can affect coral development, physiology and fitness so that repeated exposure act as a selective pressure on populations, altering the genetic and phenotypic composition of populations and driving processes of adaptation and acclimatisation. Ecological and evolutionary responses to environmental change are typically considered independently but the accelerating pace of climate change is expected to lead to coupled ecological and evolutionary changes. Identifying the range of phenotypic plasticity and evolutionary potential in genetic traits affecting thermal tolerance will be necessary to determine responses to climate change. In the marine environment, where gene flow is almost unrestricted, isolated reefs serve as ‘natural laboratories’ to investigate evolutionary processes such as selection, adaptation and speciation. In this talk, I present evidence for strong selective pressures from heat-stress and subsequent acclimatsation in coral assemblages in the remote atolls of the Coral Sea and describe how genomic association studies can map the adaptive potential of coral reef communities in an ever changing seascape.
Hugo Harrison is a Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. His research to date combines large-scale field studies with novel genetic approaches to address critical questions regarding the effective management and conservation of coral reef ecosystems. In 2016, he was awarded a ARC DECRA to develop a mechanistic understanding of connectivity and dispersal in marine organisms, which aims to identify critical regions that will enhance the value of marine resources and identify vulnerable regions in the conservation and management of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea Marine Parks. His research intersects disciplines to identify mechanisms that shape connectivity and gene flow in coral reef seascapes, the impacts of environmental gradients on coral reef communities, and their potential for acclimatisation, adaptation and recovery.