Coral reef ecosystems are under the direct threat of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases, which increase seawater temperatures in the oceans and lead to bleaching events. Global bleaching events are becoming more frequent and stronger, and understanding how corals can tolerate and survive high-temperature stress should be accorded paramount priority. Here, we review evidence of the different mechanisms that corals employ to mitigate thermal stress, which include association with thermally tolerant endosymbionts, acclimatisation, and adaptation processes. These differences highlight the physiological diversity and complexity of symbiotic organisms, such as scleractinian corals, where each species (coral host and microbial endosymbionts) responds differently to thermal stress. We conclude by offering some insights into the future of coral reefs and examining the strategies scientists are leveraging to ensure the survival of this valuable ecosystem. Without a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a divergence from our societal dependence on fossil fuels, natural mechanisms possessed by corals might be insufficient towards ensuring the ecological functioning of coral reef ecosystems.
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