Corals from the northern Red Sea, in particular the Gulf of Aqaba (GoA), have exceptionally high bleaching thresholds approaching >5℃ above their maximum monthly mean (MMM) temperatures. These elevated thresholds are thought to be due to historical selection, as corals passed through the warmer Southern Red Sea during recolonization from the Arabian Sea. To test this hypothesis, we determined thermal tolerance thresholds of GoA versus central Red Sea (CRS) Stylophora pistillata corals using multi-temperature acute thermal stress assays to determine thermal thresholds. Relative thermal thresholds of GoA and CRS corals were indeed similar and exceptionally high (~7℃ above MMM). However, absolute thermal thresholds of CRS corals were on average 3℃ above those of GoA corals. To explore the molecular underpinnings, we determined gene expression and microbiome response of the coral holobiont. Transcriptomic responses differed markedly, with a strong response to the thermal stress in GoA corals and their symbiotic algae versus a remarkably muted response in CRS colonies. Concomitant to this, coral and algal genes showed temperature-induced expression in GoA corals, while exhibiting fixed high expression (front-loading) in CRS corals. Bacterial community composition of GoA corals changed dramatically under heat stress, whereas CRS corals displayed stable assemblages. We interpret the response of GoA corals as that of a resilient population approaching a tipping point in contrast to a pattern of consistently elevated thermal resistance in CRS corals that cannot further attune. Such response differences suggest distinct thermal tolerance mechanisms that may affect the response of coral populations to ocean warming.
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics