British coral expected to expand range due to climate change | Science and technology news


The iconic species of pink fan coral, found off some UK coasts, is expected to expand its range due to climate change, new research shows.

The soft coral lives in shallow waters from north west Ireland and south west England and Wales to the western Mediterranean.

A new study from the University of Exeter found the endangered species is likely to be a “short-term winner” due to global temperature rises by spreading north, including around the UK coast.

Scientists developed habitat models that predicted the distribution of the pink sea fans over an area that includes the Bay of Biscay, the British and Irish Islands and southern Norway.

The models covered with a paper published in the journal PeerJcover the current range and where the corals are likely to live between the years 2081 and 2100.

“The model predictions have revealed current areas of suitable habitat beyond the current northern range limits of pink sea fans, in areas where colonies have not yet been observed,” said Dr. Tom Jenkins from the University of Exeter.

In describing the locations where the species could survive climate change, the researchers hope conservationists could “identify priority areas to enhance protection and ensure the long-term survival of these octocoral species.”

“It is not clear why pink sea fans have not colonized these areas yet. Potential obstacles include insufficient dispersal of their larvae and intense competition between species for space and resources,” added Dr. Jenkins added.

“Our future projections, using a high-emission global warming scenario called RCP 8.5, show an increase in suitable habitats for pink sea fans north of their current range – allowing the species to spread north by 2100.

“We also found that existing habitat in south-west Britain, the Channel Islands and north-west France is likely to remain suitable for this species for the next 60 to 80 years.”

Similar environmental shifts have been identified for another type of soft coral known as Dead Man’s Finger – with the habitable range shifting northward.

Both octocoral species are ecologically valuable “because they add complexity to reef systems and support marine biodiversity, especially when they form dense ‘forests,'” say the researchers.

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dr Jamie Stevens, also from the University of Exeter, said: “This research highlights the complex impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, where the ranges of some species respond to warming by shifting poleward.

“In a rapidly changing habitat mosaic, some species – typically those that prefer warmer conditions – may emerge as ‘winners’ in the short term.

“How long these species can continue to expand and benefit from accelerated warming remains to be seen.”

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