Oxygen Modulation of thermal tolerance in the branching coral Stylophora pistillata

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


Coral reef ecosystems are under increasing threat from ocean warming and deoxygenation. Mass coral bleaching events in recent years have been linked to marine heatwaves but reporting of hypoxia-induced bleaching has also been increasing. Oxygen availability in coral reefs is driven by community metabolism and they experience a dynamic range of oxygen concentrations throughout diel cycles, hyperoxia during the day and hypoxia during the night. It has been suggested that the highest oxygen concentrations coincide with the hottest part of the day and this may protect marine taxa from high temperatures. We evaluated experimentally whether excess oxygen availability would increase the thermal threshold of the branching coral Stylophora pistillata, from the Southern Red Sea. We did this by exposing coral fragments of this species to varying dissolved oxygen concentrations (hypoxia, normoxia and hyperoxia) and a short-term temperature ramping regime (1˚C h-1). Hyperoxia did extend the thermal tolerance of S. pistillata fragments, with an LT50 of 39.1˚C as opposed to 39.0˚C for the normoxic treatment and 38.7˚C for the hypoxic treatment. Hyperoxia also increased respiration and gross photosynthesis and had a negative effect on photochemical efficiency at high temperatures. Net photosynthesis, P:R ratio and symbiont density were not significantly affected by oxygen concentration. Corals in this experiment displayed exceedingly high thermal thresholds, which were at least 2˚C higher than previously reported for the same species in the Central Red Sea. The corals used in the experiment had previously survived mass bleaching events in 2015 and hence we may have selected for individuals adapted to thermal stress. This is the first study to investigate the role of oxygen in the thermal tolerance of hermatypic corals and the first assessment of thermal thresholds from corals in the Southern Red Sea, where previously thermal thresholds have been based on a 1-2˚C increase in maximum mean monthly temperatures and visual bleaching observations. This highlights the need for increased experimental assessments of thermal thresholds in the Southern regions of the Red Sea and the important role of oxygen in moderating thermal stress.
Date of AwardJan 2021
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorCarlos Duarte (Supervisor)


  • Oxygen
  • Thermal Tolerance
  • Coral Bleaching
  • Coral Reefs
  • Hyperoxia
  • Hypoxia

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