Bleaching - the loss of symbiotic dinoflagellates (zooxanthellae) from animals normally possessing them - can be induced by a variety of stresses, of which temperature has received the most attention. Bleaching is generally considered detrimental, but Buddemeier and Fautin have proposed that bleaching is also adaptive, providing an opportunity for recombining hosts with alternative algal types to form symbioses that might be better adapted to altered circumstances. Our mathematical model of this "adaptive bleaching hypothesis" provides insight into how animal-algae symbioses might react under various circumstances. It emulates many aspects of the coral bleaching phenomenon including: corals bleaching in response to a temperature only slightly greater than their average local maximum temperature; background bleaching; bleaching events being followed by bleaching of lesser magnitude in the subsequent one to several years; higher thermal tolerance of corals subject to environmental variability compared with those living under more constant conditions; patchiness in bleaching; and bleaching at temperatures that had not previously resulted in bleaching. ?? 1996 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.