Corals are unusual in the animal kingdom in that most species are a product of a symbiotic relationship between animals and plants: the coral animal and the zooxanthellae algae contained within their tissues. This mutually beneficial relationship defines many of the characteristics of corals and coral reefs – their construction as well as their geographic constraints.
Corals are at the mercy of global climatic changes: changes in sea level, changes in ocean circulation patterns and changes in temperature. This is evident from coral cores taken from large old corals that contain information about past environmental conditions.
AIMS scientists pioneered work in coral taxonomy and identifying areas of high biodiversity. Work is now focusing on genetic mapping of biodiversity and connectivity .
For the past 20 years, the AIMS Long Term Monitoring Program has been observing the abundance and health of corals on Australia's tropical reefs. They have found that coral decline from natural disturbance is common and reefs are typically resilient in that they recover with similar community types.
Predicted increases in the frequency and intensity of both environmental (e.g. cyclones) and biological (e.g. disease outbreaks) disturbances associated with human accelerated climate change , which shorten the recovery period and destroy neighbouring areas of biodiversity, will therefore threaten coral reefs' ability to recover.
Raised sea temperatures have also increased the frequency of bleaching events , where the coral-algal symbiosis breaks down. AIMS scientists are studying the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae to discover whether there is potential for corals to acclimatise or adapt to climate change.