Zoology Prof. Yossi Loya at the Tel Aviv University in Israel has discovered that corals changes sex to survive periods of stress, such as high water temperatures. By observing the behaviour of Japanese sea corals he discovered that stressed female mushroom coral (fungiid coral) change gender to become males, and that male corals are much better at handling stress and fare better at surviving on limited resources. Not all females go through his change but many do and most of the population is therefore male during periods of intense stress.

Yossi Loya says: “We believe, as with orchids and some trees, sex change in corals increases their overall fitness, reinforcing the important role of reproductive plasticity in determining their evolutionary success. One of the evolutionary strategies that some corals use to survive seems to be their ability to change from female to male, As males, they can pass through the bad years, then, when circumstances become more favourable, change back to overt females. Being a female takes more energy, males are less expensive to maintain. They are cheaper in terms of their gonads and the energy needed to maintain their bodies. Having the ability to change gender periodically enables a species to maximize its reproductive effort.”

Loya’s discoveries have been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The professor hopes that this new knowledge will help coral farmers by allowing them to reproduce the hardy Fungiid corals more effectively.

Loya has been studying coral reefs for more than 35 years and won the prestigious Darwin Medal for a lifetime contribution to the study of coral reefs. He is also involved in coral rehabilitation projects in the Red Sea and is a professor at the Tel Aviv University in Israel.