A new study performed has shown that an iconic coral species identified in UK waters could expand its range as a result of climate change.
The pink sea fan is known to be a soft coral that survives in shallow waters from the western Mediterranean (southern range) to the southwest of England and north-west Ireland and Wales (northern range).
The species has been categorized as “vulnerable” throughout the world and it is registered as a species of principal significance in England and Wales under the NERC Act 2006.
The new study headed by the University of Exeter has discovered that the species may spread northwards — such as around the British coast — as global temperatures increase.
The outcomes could be utilized to determine priority regions to safeguard pink sea fan populations.
We built models to predict the current and future (2081–2100) habitat of pink sea fans across an area covering the Bay of Biscay, the British Isles, and southern Norway. The model predictions revealed current areas of suitable habitat beyond the current northern range limits of the pink sea fan, in areas where colonies have not yet been observed.
Dr. Tom Jenkins, University of Exeter
Jenkins continued, “It’s not clear why pink sea fans have not yet colonized these areas. Possible barriers include insufficient dispersal of their larvae and high competition between species for space and resources.”
“Our future predictions, using a high-emissions global warming scenario called RCP 8.5, revealed an increase in suitable habitat for pink sea fans to the north of its current range—so the species could spread northwards by 2100,” added Jenkins.
Jenkins concluded, “We also found that existing habitat across south-west Britain, the Channel Islands, and north-west France is predicted to remain suitable for this species over the next 60-80 years.”
The study analyzed another soft coral species known as dead man’s fingers.
As far as this species is concerned, future predictions disclosed an entire reduction in fitting habitat in the southern portion of the study area and an accompanying rise in the northern portion of the species’ range.
Pink sea fans, similar to several octocoral species, are ecologically significant since they add complexity to reef systems and aid marine biodiversity. This is when they develop dense “forests”.
Furthermore, they could be utilized as a wider indicator of ecosystem health because diseased or fragmented colonies might be an indicator of degraded surroundings.
This research highlights the complex effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, in which the ranges of some species respond to warming by shifting pole-wards. In a rapidly changing mosaic of habitats, some species—typically those favoring warmer conditions—may come out as short-term ‘winners.’
Dr. Jamie Stevens, University of Exeter
Stevens added, “How long these species can continue to expand and benefit in the face of accelerated warming remains to be seen.”
Jenkins, T. L & Stevens, J. R (2022) Predicting habitat suitability and range shifts under projected climate change for two octocorals in the north-east Atlantic. PeerJ. doi.org/10.7717/peerj.13509