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How does Caribbean fire coral thrive as others vanish?

Fire corals can be the bane of a scuba diver’s existence. An accidental brush against one can cause agonizing pain. But they also may help save Caribbean reefs, which have been plagued by hurricanes, global warming, disease, and an overabundance of algae. A long-term study has revealed that fire corals (Millepora) are thriving there even as other corals disappear and could help preserve some of the 3D environment that helps make reefs such great homes to fish and other organisms.

Fire coral “are going to be very important habitat providers because they are able to survive under these stresses,” says Colleen Bove, a marine ecologist at Boston University who was not involved with the work.

Thirty years ago, Peter Edmunds began doing annual surveys of underwater life off St. John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The marine biologist from California State University, Northridge, marked out a 20-meter transect along an underwater reef. Each summer he has photographed what grew there, including an expanded transect of 40 meters.

By analyzing the abundance of each organism in these “photoquadrats,” Edmunds has traced how algae and various corals have fared through hurricanes, warming sea temperatures, and other environmental stresses. “What he’s done is really remarkable,” says Caroline Dubé, a marine biologist at Laval University who studies plasticity in Pacific fire coral. “There are so many disturbances occurring in coral reefs that this is something that needs to be done more.”

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