Newfound Reef 'Oases' Thriving Against All Odds Offer 'Glimmer Of Hope' For Dying Coral Reefs

In a fortunate and completely unexpected discovery, researchers have come across 38 coral reefs that have managed to beat the odds and flourish in spite of the widespread ecological decline brought on by global warming and pollution, reports National Geographic.

Scattered around the world, these small "oases" of resilient reefs offer a "glimmer of hope" for the future of coral reefs, notes a press release by Newcastle University in the U.K., which was involved in a recent study detailing this incredible find.

"Small 'oases' in the world's oceans where corals appear to be thriving, could offer vital insights in the race to save one of the world's most threatened ecosystems."
The idea is that the newfound reef "oases," uncovered by an international team of 18 researchers that included scientists from the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawaii in Mānoa, could teach us how to help the world's dying reefs by understanding what it took for the 38 reefs to avoid destruction, notes the Independent.

The resilient coral reefs were discovered in various sites in four key locations within the Pacific and the Caribbean that have been monitored for at least 10 years.

And, as it turns out, they seem to owe their secret to very specific tactics that have helped them withstand the threats plaguing reefs everywhere else in the world.

"Coral reefs are in rapid, global decline but the severity of degradation is not uniform across the board and what we have identified are coral reefs that are doing better than their neighbors against the worst effects of climate change and local impacts," said lead study author Dr. James Guest, a HIMB scientist who is currently a European Research Council Fellow at Newcastle University.

How The 38 Reefs Managed To Survive

The new research, published yesterday in the Journal of Applied Ecology, reveals that the 38 reef "oases" still flourishing in the Pacific and Caribbean have resorted to three different strategies in order to stay alive.

According to each survival plan, the scientists cataloged the reefs as "escape," "resist," or "rebound" oases, states the University of Hawaii.

The names are self-explanatory and show that, while "escape" reefs have been lucky enough to completely avoid coral bleaching and predation by coral-eating sea stars, "resist" reefs have proved to be extremely invulnerable to environmental challenges. Meanwhile, "rebound" reefs have been through their fair share of devastation but have somehow managed to overcome the damage and bounce back to a coral-dominated state.

Dr. Guest points out that there are a number of reasons why some reefs thrive and are left unscathed while others experience a significant ruin. For one, the survivors might be located in a safer area, out of the destructive path of hurricanes and other environmental threats.

Another explanation could lie in the biological make-up of these coral communities that might give them the upper-hand and help them become impervious to damage.

A third reason why the newfound reef "oases" could be doing so well might be connected to the ecological characteristics of the area they inhabit, says Dr. Guest.

"There may be ecological processes at play which means that the reef community is able to rebound more quickly after a disturbance."
The team found particularly striking the case of the Moreea reefs in the French Polynesia archipelago of the South Pacific. These reefs had initially been studied in 2005 when their corals were found to be under attack by coral-eating sea stars, notes study co-author Peter Edmunds, from California State University in Northridge.

Huahine island in the French Polynesia.
Coral reef near Huahine Island in the French Polynesia archipelago.

Five years later, the reefs of Moreea had been completely decimated by their aggressors, but a second return trip in 2018 revealed that the reefs had gone through a spectacular rebound, covering up to 80 percent of the sea floor in live coral.

What This Means For Threatened Coral Reefs

While this news is utterly fantastic, Dr. Guest warns that there is no room for complacency.

"This glimmer of hope does not mean we can be complacent about the severity of the crisis facing most of the world's coral reefs."
The situation of coral reefs worldwide is more than dire, with enormous losses being recorded over the last few years. According to a recent report by the Inquisitr, the Great Barrier Reef lost 50 percent of its corals since 2016 as a direct result of coral bleaching.

"However, there are kernels of hope in places where corals are doing better, or where they are doing less badly than elsewhere and these places provide us with a focus of attention that might be used to enhance coral conservation efforts," says Edmunds.

The discovery of the 38 coral reef "oases" could give conservationists a starting point and help them figure out makes some ecosystems more resistant and which are the ocean areas that need to be better protected or require "specific management strategies, such as restoration or mitigation," notes Dr. Guest.