Distribution of zooxanthellate zoantharians in the Canary Islands: Potential indicators of ocean warming
Global warming is driving changes in the distribution patterns of many species, leading to a general tropicalization and meridionalization of biota. In this context, populations of some marine species are in regression while others are expanding their populations. Such is the case of benthic cnidarians belonging to the order Zoantharia and suborder Brachycnemina, whose populations are able to cause phase-shifts in coral reef ecosystems. Marine assemblages in the subtropical Canary Islands region consist of a combination of both temperate and tropical species, mainly due to the east-to-west seawater temperature gradient that naturally exists throughout the archipelago. This can reach a 2 °C difference (≈23-25 °C east to west in summer months). These biogeographical features make the archipelago a unique location to research into biota reorganisation processes. The aim of this study was to establish a baseline of the distribution and abundance data of zoantharian Brachycnemina populations in the Canary Islands. To elucidate whether these species are potential bioindicators of ocean warming processes, patterns of species distribution and their relationships with the temperature gradient across the archipelago were also evaluated. Results demonstrated that intertidal and subtidal populations of Palythoa aff. clavata and P. caribaeorum, respectively, followed distribution patterns related to the temperature ranges recorded in situ by data loggers. Extensive populations were found in the western islands where seawater temperatures are warmer than the eastern islands. Since biota reorganisation usually produces loss of ecosystem functions, it is essential to establish baseline datasets of climate change indicators and also effective monitoring programmes. These will allow early detection of phase-shifts before they lead to significant changes in ecosystem dynamics.