Historically, reefs in the southern basin of the Arabian Gulf were dominated by extensive table coral colonies of the Arabian staghorn coral, Acropora downingi , with thickets extending over many square kilometers . A. downingi , like table corals on reefs across the globe, is a major habitat-forming coral that provides important three-dimensional structure on reefs for use as food, habitat, and shelter for a variety of reef associated fish and invertebrates. The species in endemic to the Arabian region and is also a major contributor to the formation of reef structure.
Although A. downingi is adapted to the naturally extreme environmental conditions of the gulf, its populations in the Gulf have undergone significant declines in the past decades due to sea surface temperature anomalies during the years 1996 and 1998 where temperatures reached 37.7°C, which is more than 2°C above the normal summer maxima of 35°C: the highest temperature known to be experienced by corals on earth. As a result of these extreme temperatures over a decade ago, Acropora table corals, which are sensitive to thermal stress, suffered widespread mortality in the southern Gulf and in were virtually lost from many reefs in the southern Gulf.
Despite the widespread Acropora mortalities, recovery in the form of juveniles recruiting on impacted reefs was seen as early as 2000, with a small number of areas showing some recovery by 2007. However, further extreme thermal events, increased severe bleaching events in 2010 and 2011, and continued large scale coastal development have again resulted in the virtual loss of A. downingi. These formerly dominant table corals now make up less than 1% of live corals on reefs in the southern Gulf and it is considered to be in decline by the IUCN.
It is essential that a better understanding of the biology of this species be established to support management and conservation of populations in the Gulf, as well as to understand how climate change may affect similarly sensitive table coral species elsewhere in the future. This research project being conducted at NYU Abu Dhabi seeks to examine the reproductive ecology of the Arabian staghorm coral in the Gulf to develop a better understanding of its biology so that conservation of this unique and important species can be implemented.
Project 12255272 location - United Arab Emirates, Asia