Are mesophotic coral ecosystems distinct communities and can they serve as refugia for shallow reefs?
We analyzed an extensive dataset of over 9000 benthic and suprabenthic species found throughout the Gulf of Mexico (GoMx) to assess whether mesophotic coral ecosystems represent distinct assemblages and evaluate their potential to serve as refugia for shallow reef communities. We assessed community structure of the overall benthic community from 0 to 300 m via non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) of species presence across depth bands. We used the Jaccard index of similarity to calculate the proportion of shared species between adjacent depth bands, measure species turnover with depth, and assess taxonomic overlap between shallow reefs versus progressively deeper depth bands. NMDS ordinations showed that the traditionally defined mesophotic range (30–150 m) as a whole is not a distinct community. In contrast, taxonomically distinct communities, determined by hierarchical clustering, were found at 0–70, 60–120, 110–200, and 190–300 m. Clustering highlighted an important separation in the benthic community at ~60 m, which was especially important for actinopterygian fishes. Species turnover between adjacent depths decreased with depth for all taxa combined and individual taxa, with peaks at ~60, 90–120, and 190–200 m. Fishes showed lower turnover from shallow to upper mesophotic depths (0–50 m) than all taxa combined, a substantial peak at 60 m, followed by a precipitous and continued decline in turnover thereafter. Taxonomic overlap between shallow (0–20 m) and progressively deeper zones declined steadily with depth in all taxa and individual taxa, suggesting that mid- and lower mesophotic habitats have less (but not inconsequential) potential to serve as refugia (60–150 m, 15–25% overlap with shallow habitats) than upper mesophotic zones (30–60 m, 30–45% overlap with shallow habitats) for all taxa combined. We conclude that the traditional mesophotic zone is home to three ecological communities in the GoMx, one that is confluent with shallow reefs, a distinct mesophotic assemblage spanning 60–120 m, and a third that extends onto the outer continental shelf.