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Coral Spawning on the Great Barrier Reef May be Threatened by Light Pollution

First Posted: Dec 15, 2015 11:14 AM EST

Light pollution may be a serious threat to coral spawning. Scientists have found that artificial light may cause corals to spawn at the wrong time-or not at all.

"The introduction of artificial light competes with moonlight and can prevent corals from spawning," said Paulina Kaniewska, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Even though corals don't have a brain, they have a spread-out nervous system that allows them to transmit signals in response to sensing changes in light conditions on a cellular level."

The release of sex cells in corals is triggered by a protein that's similar to the photosensitive melanopsin molecule. In mammals, melanopsin plays an important role in synchronizing circadian rhythms with the daily light-dark cycle. For corals, it may help them synchronize when they spawn, and thus make sure reproduction is successful.

"Effects of light on the timing of spawning are so important because sexual reproduction is vital to reef survival," said Kaniewska. "This research suggests that urban light pollution from excessive artificial light can be a real threat to coral reproduction. The annual coral spawning on the Great Barrier Reef is a spectacular synchronized reproduction event where changes in water temperature, tides, sunrise and sunset and the intensity of the moonlight trigger large-scale mass spawning of hundreds of coral species over several nights."

The findings show the importance of limiting light in areas where corals spawn. This is especially important when considering how rising temperatures are impacting these reefs over time.

The findings are published in the journal eLifeSciences.

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