Energetic and reproductive costs of coral recovery in divergent bleaching responses.
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Mass thermal bleaching events are a primary threat to coral reefs, yet the sublethal impacts, particularly on energetics and reproduction, are poorly characterized. Given that the persistence of coral populations is contingent upon the reproduction of individuals that survive disturbances, there is an urgent need to understand the sublethal effects of bleaching on reproductive output to accurately predict coral recovery rates. In 2019, the French Polynesian island of Mo'orea experienced a severe mass bleaching event accompanied by widespread coral mortality. At the most heavily impacted sites, we observed Acropora hyacinthus individuals that were resistant to bleaching, alongside colonies that bleached but showed signs of symbiont recovery shortly after the bleaching event. We collected fragments from A. hyacinthus colonies five months post-bleaching and, using energetic assays and histological measurements, examined the physiological and reproductive consequences of these two distinct heat stress responses. Despite healthy appearances in both resistant and recovered corals, we found that recovered colonies had significantly reduced energy reserves compared to resistant colonies. In addition, we detected compound effects of stress on reproduction: recovered colonies displayed both a lower probability of containing gametes and lower fecundity per polyp. Our results indicate that bleaching inflicts an energetic constraint on the concurrent re-accumulation of energy reserves and development of reproductive material, with decreased reproductive potential of survivors possibly hampering overall reef resilience. These findings highlight the presence of intraspecific responses to bleaching and the importance of considering multiple trajectories for individual species when predicting population recovery following disturbance.