Comparative thermal performance of the reef-building coral Orbicella franksi at its latitudinal range limits

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Temperature drives biological responses that scale from the cellular to ecosystem levels and thermal sensitivity will shape organismal functions and population dynamics as the world warms. Reef-building corals are sensitive to temperature due to their endosymbiotic relationship with single-celled dinoflagellates, with mass mortality events increasing in frequency and magnitude. The purpose of this study was to quantify the thermal sensitivity of important physiological functions of a Caribbean reef-building coral, Orbicella franksi, through the measurement of thermal performance curves (TPCs). We compared TPC metrics (thermal optimum, critical maximum, activation energy, deactivation energy, and rate at a standardized temperature) between two populations at the northern and southern extents of the geographic range of O. franksi. We further compared essential coral organismal processes (gross photosynthesis, respiration, and calcification) within a site to determine which function is most sensitive to thermal stress using a hierarchical Bayesian-modeling approach. We found evidence for differences in thermal performance, which could be due to thermal adaptation or acclimatization, with higher TPC metrics (thermal optimum and critical maximum) in warmer Panama, compared to cooler Bermuda. We also documented the hierarchy in thermal sensitivity of essential organismal functions within a population: respiration was less sensitive than photosynthesis, which was less sensitive than calcification. Understanding thermal performance of corals is essential for projecting coral reef futures, given that key biological functions necessary to sustain coral reef ecosystems are thermally mediated.

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Marine Biology