“Climate change is happening rapidly, so it’s important to understand how organisms can respond to rapid change,” comments Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine biologist at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. He says that the results are a useful confirmation of the complexity of genetic response to thermal stress. But that complexity, he warns, “suggests that we’re not going to see corals rapidly evolving over the next decades in response to 1–2 °C changes in temperature.”

The team is now investigating whether the pattern of front-loaded genes is shared by other temperature-resilient coral species, with the aim of better understanding the process and potentially developing a diagnostic test to identify sites around the world where coral might stand a better chance of surviving global warming.

As they grapple with the inevitability of climate change and other threats such as development, some ecologists are beginning to embrace a pragmatic approach to conservation. “You can’t completely stop the bulldozers, and warming is going to happen", Palumbi says. "So you may as well at least try to keep the bulldozers away from areas where the coral can withstand the warming.”