New research suggests that iconic coral species found in UK waters may be expanding their range due to climate change.
The Pink Sea Fan is a soft coral that lives in shallow waters from the western Mediterranean (southern range) to northwestern Ireland and the southwest of England and Wales (northern range).
This species is classified as “vulnerable” worldwide and is listed as a species of fundamental importance in England and Wales under the 2006 NERC Act.
A new study by the University of Exeter has found that the species is likely to spread north – including around the British coast – as global temperatures rise.
The results can be used to identify priority areas for the protection of rose sea populations.
“We have built models to predict the current and future (2081-2100) habitat of rose sea lovers in the Bay of Biscay, the British Isles and southern Norway,” said Dr Tom Jenkins of the University of Exeter.
“Model forecasts have revealed modern sites of suitable habitat beyond the current northern boundaries of the pink sea fan range, in areas where colonies have not yet been observed.
“It is unclear why the lovers of the Pink Sea have not yet colonized these territories. Possible barriers include insufficient scattering of their larvae and high competition between species for space and resources.
“Our future projections, using a high-emission global warming scenario called RCP 8.5, have shown an increase in suitable habitat for rose sea lovers north of its current range – so the species could spread north by 2100.
“We have also found that the existing habitat in the south-west of Britain, the Channel Islands and north-western France is projected to remain suitable for this species for the next 60-80 years.”
The study investigated another species of soft coral called the fingers of a deceased person.
For this species, future projections revealed a general decrease in suitable habitat in the southern part of the study area and a concomitant increase in the northern range of the species.
Proponents of the rose sea, like many species of octopus, are of ecological importance because they complicate reef systems and support marine biodiversity, especially when they form dense “forests”.
They can also be used as a broader indicator of ecosystem health because fragmented or diseased colonies can be an indicator of a degraded environment.
Dr Jamie Stevens, also from the University of Exeter, said: “This study highlights the complex effects of climate change on marine ecosystems in which habitats of some species respond to polar shift warming.
In a rapidly changing mosaic of habitats, some species – usually those that prefer warmer conditions – can become short-term “winners”.
“How long these species can continue to expand and benefit in the face of accelerated warming remains to be seen.”
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