Coastal lights trick coral reefs into spawning earlier than they should

The light pollution caused by coastal cities can trick coral reefs into spawning outside of the optimum times when they would normally reproduce, a new study has found.

Coral broadcast spawning events – in which lunar cycles trigger the release of eggs on certain nights of the year – are critical to the maintenance and recovery of reefs following mass bleaching and other similar events.

However, using a combination of light pollution data and spawning observations, researchers were able to show for the first time that corals exposed to artificial light at night (ALAN) are spawning one to three days closer to the full moon compared to those on unlit reefs.

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Spawning on different nights could reduce the likelihood of coral eggs being fertilised and surviving to produce new adult corals that help reefs to recover after bleaching events and other disturbances.

The research, published in Nature Communications, is the latest to be carried out as part of the Artificial Light Impacts on Coastal Ecosystems (ALICE) project, which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

It builds on research published in December 2021 which mapped out the areas of the ocean most affected by light pollution.

That study found that at a depth of one metre, 1.9 million sq km of coastal ocean are exposed to biologically important ALAN (around 3.1% of the global Exclusive Economic Zones).

For the new study, researchers paired that data with a global dataset of 2,135 coral spawning observations from the 21st century.

This enabled them to demonstrate that ALAN is possibly advancing the triggers for spawning by creating a perceived period of minimum illuminance between sunset and moonrise on nights following the full moon.

Dr Thomas Davies, Lecturer in Marine Conservation at the University of Plymouth, is the study’s lead author and also principal investigator of the ALICE project. He said: “Corals are critical for the health of the global ocean, but are being increasingly damaged by human activity. This study shows it is not just changes in the ocean that are impacting them, but the continued development of coastal cities as we try and accommodate the growing global population. If we want to mitigate against the harm this is causing, we could perhaps look to delay the switching on of night-time lighting in coastal regions to ensure the natural dark period between sunset and moonrise that triggers spawning remains in tact. That would potentially raise a number of economic and safety issues, but is something we potentially need to consider to ensure our coral reefs are given the best chance of survival.”

Dr Tim Smyth, Head of Science for Marine Biogeochemistry and Observations at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the study’s senior author, added: “This study further emphasises the importance of artificial light pollution as a stressor of coastal and marine ecosystems, with the impacts on various aspects of biodiversity only now being discovered and quantified. A critical first step along that path was enabled with our global in-water light pollution atlas which highlighted for the first time the true extent of the problem, which hitherto had gone unrecognised.”

The study looked at coastal regions all over the world, but coral reefs in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf are particularly affected by light pollution.

They are areas where coastlines have been heavily developed in recent years and where coral reefs are both close to the shore and at particular risk.

IMAGE CREDIT: Sahchaf Ben Ezra

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