Climate change is affecting reef-building corals worldwide, with little hope for recovery. However, coral fossils hint at the existence of environmental stress–triggered survival strategies unreported in extant colonial corals. We document the living evidence and long-term ecological role of such a survival strategy in which isolated polyps from coral colonies affected by warming adopt a transitory resistance phase, in turn expressing a high recovery capacity in dead colony areas. Such processes have been described in fossil corals as rejuvenescence but were previously unknown in extant reef-builder corals. Our results based on 16 years of monitoring show the significance of this process for unexpected recoveries of coral colonies severely affected by warming. These findings provide a link between rejuvenescence in fossil and extant corals and reveal that beyond adaptation and acclimatization processes, modern scleractinian corals show yet undiscovered and highly effective survival strategies that help them withstand and recover from rapid environmental changes.