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Biol Bull. 2001 Feb;200(1):51-8.

The adaptive bleaching hypothesis: experimental tests of critical assumptions.

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  • 1Zoology Department and Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu 96822, USA.


Coral bleaching, the loss of color due to loss of symbiotic zooxanthellae or their pigment, appears to be increasing in intensity and geographic extent, perhaps related to increasing sea surface temperatures. The adaptive bleaching hypothesis (ABH) posits that when environmental circumstances change, the loss of one or more kinds of zooxanthellae is rapidly, sometimes unnoticeably, followed by formation of a new symbiotic consortium with different zooxanthellae that are more suited to the new conditions in the host's habitat. Fundamental assumptions of the ABH include (1) different types of zooxanthellae respond differently to environmental conditions, specifically temperature, and (2) bleached adults can secondarily acquire zooxanthellae from the environment. We present simple tests of these assumptions and show that (1) genetically different strains of zooxanthellae exhibit different responses to elevated temperature, (2) bleached adult hosts can acquire algal symbionts with an apparently dose-dependent relationship between the concentration of zooxanthellae and the rate of establishment of the symbiosis, (3) and finally, bleached adult hosts can acquire symbionts from the water column.

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