Multi-Year Viability of a Reef Coral Population Living on Mangrove Roots Suggests an Important Role for Mangroves in the Broader Habitat Mosaic of Corals
Half of coral species that occur on Caribbean reefs have also been reported living in mangroves. Given the vulnerability of corals living on reefs to environmental change, populations of the same species living in mangroves may prove critical to long-term survival of these coral species and the resilience of nearby reefs. To date, few studies have addressed the health and viability of mangrove coral populations, which is necessary if we are to understand their role in the broader meta-community. Here we present the first longitudinal study of the distribution, survival, growth, and recruitment of a mangrove coral population over multiple years. From 2014 to 2018, we fully censused a population of Porites divaricata along 640 meters of a mangrove-lined channel at Calabash Caye, Belize, and beginning in 2015, we tagged individual colonies for longitudinal monitoring. Year-to-year survivorship averaged 66.6% (±3.9 SE), and of the surviving colonies, on average, 72.7% (±2.5 SE) experienced net growth. The number of colonies, their spatial distribution, and population size-structure were essentially unchanged, except for an unusually high loss of larger colonies from 2016 to 2017, possibly the result of a local disturbance. However, each annual census revealed substantial turnover. For example, from 2016 to 2017, the loss or death of 72 colonies was offset by the addition of 89 recruits. Integral projection models (IPM) for two consecutive one-year intervals implicated recruitment and the persistence of large colonies as having the largest impacts on population growth. This 5-year study suggests that the P. divaricata population in the mangroves is viable, but may be routinely impacted by disturbances that cause the mortality of larger colonies. As many corals occur across a mosaic of habitat types, understanding the population dynamics and life-history variability of corals across habitats, and quantifying genetic exchange between habitats, will be critical to forecasting the fate of individual coral species and to maximizing the efficacy of coral restoration efforts.