Diversifying the world’s portfolio of protected coral reefs is critical to safeguarding biodiversity for our oceans, says a 27-year study of Kenyan corals out now in the Journal of the International Coral Reef Society. Scientists emphasize that rather than continuing to protect the most charismatic and well-recognized corals and habitats, we must “spread our risk” by protecting a more diverse mosaic of reef habitats. Conserving uncommon coral varieties by establishing protected areas that include many habitats will help build greater biodiversity and resilience for reefs facing threats from climate change.

“We need to protect corals and their habitats that are different and complementary,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Tim McClanahan. “When we protect, we select – so we’re actively making decisions about which species to protect and which to ignore. For coral reefs, we tend to protect areas that appear to be stable, highly diverse, and beautiful, but these areas are often not resilient to the impacts of climate change. The way we currently choose locations to protect is not sufficient – we need to ensure that we are conserving a diversity of complementary species and reef habitats, especially those reefs that support uncommon and rare corals, as they may prove to be more resilient to warming oceans in the long term.”