Cold water coral species classified as "vulnerable" worldwide are likely to spread northwards as global temperatures rise a new study, by the University of Exeter, finds. The results could be used to identify priority areas to protect pink sea fan populations.
Species distribution models have become a valuable tool to predict the distribution of species across geographic space and time.
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.
"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," said Dr Tom Jenkins, from the University of Exeter.
"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 examined another soft coral species called dead man's fingers.
These two species are both sessile, need substrate on which to attach, require moderate-strong water movement, and are typically recorded in coastal waters, 1–50 m depth
The optimal model predictions showed areas of potentially suitable habitat where colonies have not been observed, especially for E. verrucosa, where areas beyond its known northern range limit were identified.
Pink sea fans, like many octocoral species, are ecologically important because they add complexity to reef systems and support marine biodiversity, especially when they form dense ‘forests’.
In a rapidly changing mosaic of habitats, some species – typically those favouring warmer conditions – may come out as short-term ‘winners.