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British coral predicted to expand its range due to climate change

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The iconic species of pink sea fan coral found on some British coasts is expected to expand its range due to climate change, new research shows.

The soft coral lives in shallow waters ranging from north-west Ireland and south-west England and Wales all the way to the western Mediterranean.

A new study by the University of Exeter found that the vulnerable species is likely to be a “short-term winner” by spreading northwards, including around the British coast, due to global temperature increases.

Scientists developed habitat models predicting pink sea fan distributions across an area covering the Bay of Biscay, the British and Irish Isles and southern Norway.

The models, covered in a paper published in the journal PeerJ, cover the current range and where the corals are likely to be able to live between the years 2081 and 2100.

“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,” said Dr Tom Jenkins, from the University of Exeter.

In detailing the locations where the species may be able to survive climate change, the researchers hope that conservationists could “identify priority areas to enhance protection and ensure the long-term survival of these octocoral species”.

“It’s not clear why pink sea fans have not yet colonised these areas. Possible barriers include insufficient dispersal of their larvae and high competition between species for space and resources,” Dr Jenkins added.

“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.

“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.”

Similar environmental shifts were identified for another species of soft coral known as dead man’s fingers – with the habitable range moving north.

Both of these octocoral species are ecologically valuable “because they add complexity to reef systems and support marine biodiversity, especially when they form dense ‘forests’,” say the researchers.

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Dr Jamie Stevens, also from the University of Exeter, said: “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 favouring warmer conditions – may come out as 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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