Coral reefs are biodiversity hotspots of immense socio-economic importance that are increasingly threatened by recurrent mass bleaching events. As rapid climate change progressively reduces the recovery times between bleaching events, there is an urgent need to better understand how coral reefs can acclimatize or adapt to warming oceans and how they can recover from heat-stress induced disturbances. Corals living in naturally extreme reef environments, such as the macrotidal Kimberley region in northwestern Australia, can provide important insights into the mechanisms and drivers of adaptive responses to suboptimcal physico-chemical conditions, and, thus, climate change.
In this talk, I will present findings from field and laboratory research investigating (1) how fine-scale environmental variability impacts the recovery capacity of corals following an unprecedented mass bleaching event, and (2) whether naturally heat-adapted corals from thermally extreme reef environments can improve/maintain their heat tolerance under long-term warm and cold acclimation. Our findings show that thermally variable reef environments promote coral recovery capacity and adaptives responses to heat stress, and that corals from these reefs were able to maintain their superior heat tolerance under long-term cold acclimation. However, rigid bleaching thresholds under long-term warm acclimation indicate limited acclimatization capacity and, thus, the increasing vulnerability of corals to rapid ocean warming and recurrent bleaching events.
Verena Schoepf is originally from Austria where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s degree in Zoology from the University of Innsbruck. She then started a PhD in Geological Sciences at The Ohio State University where she studied the impacts of combined climate change stressors on coral physiology and biogeochemistry. In 2013, Verena joined the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies as a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia. Since 2017, she is also one of the Program Leaders in the Centre, co-leading the Research Program “Ecosystem Dynamics: Past, Present and Future”. Verena has won several awards, including a WA Young Tall Poppy Science Award which recognizes academic achievement and excellence in science communcation. Her current research focuses on the heat tolerance of corals from the naturally extreme Kimberley region as well as coral calcification mechanisms under various climate change stressors.