Drivers of recovery and reassembly of coral reef communities
Understanding processes that drive community recovery are needed to predict ecosystem trajectories and manage for impacts under increasing global threats. Yet, the quantification of community recovery in coral reefs has been challenging owing to a paucity of long-term ecological data and high frequency of disturbances. Here we investigate community re-assembly and the bio-physical drivers that determine the capacity of coral reefs to recover following the 1998 bleaching event, using long-term monitoring data across four habitats in Palau. Our study documents that the time needed for coral reefs to recover from bleaching disturbance to coral-dominated state in disturbance-free regimes is at least 9–12 years. Importantly, we show that reefs in two habitats achieve relative stability to a climax community state within that time frame. We then investigated the direct and indirect effects of drivers on the rate of recovery of four dominant coral groups using a structural equation modelling approach. While the rates of recovery differed among coral groups, we found that larval connectivity and juvenile coral density were prominent drivers of recovery for fast growing Acropora but not for the other three groups. Competitive algae and parrotfish had negative and positive effects on coral recovery in general, whereas wave exposure had variable effects related to coral morphology. Overall, the time needed for community re-assembly is habitat specific and drivers of recovery are taxa specific, considerations that require incorporation into planning for ecosystem management under climate change.