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.
Ecological theory predicts that ecosystems with multiple basins of attraction can get locked in an undesired state, which has profound ecological and management implications. Despite their significance, alternative attractors have proven to be challenging to detect and characterize in natural communities. On coral reefs, it has been hypothesized that persistent coral-to-macroalgae “phase shifts” that can result from overfishing of herbivores and/or nutrient enrichment may reflect a regime shift to an alternate attractor, but, to date, the evidence has been equivocal. Our field experiments in Moorea, French Polynesia, revealed the following: (i) hysteresis existed in the herbivory–macroalgae relationship, creating the potential for coral–macroalgae bistability at some levels of herbivory, and (ii) macroalgae were an alternative attractor under prevailing conditions in the lagoon but not on the fore reef, where ambient herbivory fell outside the experimentally delineated region of hysteresis. These findings help explain the different community responses to disturbances between lagoon and fore reef habitats of Moorea over the past several decades and reinforce the idea that reversing an undesired shift on coral reefs can be difficult. Our experimental framework represents a powerful diagnostic tool to probe for multiple attractors in ecological systems and, as such, can inform management strategies needed to maintain critical ecosystem functions in the face of escalating stresses.
Assessing coral reef resilience is an increasingly important component of coral reef management. Existing coral reef resilience assessments are not practical, especially for developing countries. South-east Asian countries have been using line-intercept-transect (LIT) in coral reef monitoring for a long time. The present study proposes an index for assessing coral reef resilience based on data collected from the LIT method. The resilience index formula was modified from an existing resilience index for soil communities developed by Orwin and Wardle. We used an ideal resilient coral reef community as a reference point for the index. The ideal coral reef was defined from data collected from 1992 to 2009. Six variables were statistically selected for the resilience indicators: coral functional group (CFG), coral habitat quality (CHQ), sand-silt cover (SSC), coral cover (COC), coral small-size number (CSN), and algae-other-fauna (AOF) cover. Maximum values of five variables were determined as the best state, while the maximum value of CSN was determined from 1240 data-sets of Indonesian reefs. The resilience index performed well in relation to changes in COC, AOF, and SSC variables. Managers can use this tool to compare coral reef resilience levels among locations and times. This index would be applicable for global coral reef resilience assessment.
Caribbean coral reefs are undergoing massive degradation, with local increases of macroalgae and reduction of architectural complexity associated with loss of reef-building corals. We explored whether reef degradation affects the feeding ecology of two co-occurring spiny lobsters: Panulirus guttatus, which is an obligate reef-dweller, and Panulirus argus, which uses various benthic habitats including coral reefs. We collected lobsters of both species from the back-reef zones of two large reefs similar in length (∼1.5 km) but differing widely in level of degradation, at the Puerto Morelos Reef National Park (Mexico). We measured the carapace length (CL) and weight (W) of lobsters, estimated three condition indices (hepatosomatic index, HI; blood refractive index, BRI; and W/CL ratio), and analyzed their stomach contents and stable isotope values (δ15N and δ13C). All lobsters tested negative for the presence of the virus PaV1, which can affect nutritional condition. Stomach contents yielded 72 animal taxa, mainly mollusks and crustaceans, with an average of 35 taxa per species per reef, but with much overlap. In P. guttatus, CL, HI, BRI, and W/CL did not vary with reef, but mean isotopic values did. The isotopic niche of P. guttatus showed little overlap between reefs, reflecting differences in local carbon sources and underlining the habitat specialization of P. guttatus, which exhibited a higher trophic position on the more degraded reef. Overall, the trophic position of P. guttatus was higher than that of P. argus. In P. argus, none of the variables differed between reefs and the isotopic niche was wide and with great overlap between reefs, reflecting the broader foraging ranges of P. argus compared to P. guttatus. Additional isotopic values from 16 P. arguscaught at a depth of 25 m in the fore reef suggest that these larger lobsters forage over different habitats and have a higher trophic position than their smaller conspecifics and congeners from the back reef. The feeding ecology of P. argus appears to be less influenced by coral reef degradation than that of P. guttatus, but our results suggest a buffering effect of omnivory against habitat degradation for both lobster species.
Corallivory is the predation of coral mucus, tissue, and skeleton by fishes and invertebrates, and a source of chronic stress for many reef-building coral species. Corallivores often prey on corals repeatedly, and this predation induces wounds that require extensive cellular resources to heal. The effects of corallivory on coral growth, reproduction, and community dynamics are well-documented, and often result in reduced growth rates and fitness. Given the degree of anthropogenic pressures that threaten coral reefs, it is now imperative to focus on understanding how corallivory interacts with anthropogenic forces to alter coral health and community dynamics. For example, coral bleaching events that stem from global climate change often reduce preferred corals species for many corallivorous fishes. These reductions in preferred prey may result in declines in populations of more specialized corallivores while more generalist corallivores may increase. Corallivory may also make corals more susceptible to thermal stress and exacerbate bleaching. At local scales, overfishing depletes corallivorous fish stocks, reducing fish corallivory and bioerosion, whilst removing invertivorous fishes and allowing population increases in invertebrate corallivores (e.g., urchins, Drupella spp.). Interactive effects of local stressors, such as overfishing and nutrient pollution, can alter the effect of corallivory by increasing coral-algal competition and destabilizing the coral microbiome, subsequently leading to coral disease and mortality. Here, we synthesize recent literature of how global climate change and local stressors affect corallivore populations and shape the patterns and effect of corallivory. Our review indicates that the combined effects of corallivory and anthropogenic pressures may be underappreciated and that these interactions often drive changes in coral reefs on scales from ecosystems to microbes. Understanding the ecology of coral reefs in the Anthropocene will require an increased focus on how anthropogenic forcing alters biotic interactions, such as corallivory, and the resulting cascading effects on corals and reef ecosystems.
Increases in seawater temperature associated with global climate change are causing the mutualistic relationship between reef-building corals and the symbiotic dinoflagellates (genus Symbiodinium) that reside within their cells to break down. There is consequently an urgent need to develop tools for modeling coral biology in response to environmental shifts, an enterprise that is complicated by the fact that no pristine reefs remain on Earth. This work sought to 1) uncover the environmental factors that contribute most to observed spatio-temporal variation in coral physiology and 2) devise means of detecting anomalous behavior in field corals by analyzing a dataset from the Austral (French Polynesia) and Cook Islands of the South Pacific with a multivariate statistical approach. Upon employing this multi-tiered analytical platform, host genotype was found to be the most significant driver of variation in physiology of the pocilloporid coral colonies sampled across the two archipelagos. Furthermore, those colonies demonstrating the most extensive variation across the seven response variables assessed tended to deviate most significantly from the global mean response calculated across all samples, suggesting that high within-sample physiological variability may be one means of delineating aberrant coral behavior in the absence of data from pristine control reefs.
Scientists have advocated for local interventions, such as creating marine protected areas and implementing fishery restrictions, as ways to mitigate local stressors to limit the effects of climate change on reef-building corals. However, in a literature review, we find little empirical support for the notion of managed resilience. We outline some reasons for why marine protected areas and the protection of herbivorous fish (especially parrotfish) have had little effect on coral resilience. One key explanation is that the impacts of local stressors (e.g., pollution and fishing) are often swamped by the much greater effect of ocean warming on corals. Another is the sheer complexity (including numerous context dependencies) of the five cascading links assumed by the managed-resilience hypothesis. If reefs cannot be saved by local actions alone, then it is time to face reef degradation head-on, by directly addressing anthropogenic climate change—the root cause of global coral decline.
The Red Sea is a unique body of water, hosting some of the most productive and diverse coral reefs. Human populations along coasts of the Red Sea were initially sparse due to the hot and arid climate surrounding it, but this is changing with improved desalination techniques, accessible energy, and increased economic interest in coastal areas. In addition to increasing pressure on reefs from coastal development, global drivers, primarily ocean acidification and seawater warming, are threatening coral reefs of the region. While reefs in southern sections of the Red Sea live near or above their maximum temperature tolerance and have experienced bleaching events in the recent past, coral reefs in northern sections are considered a coral reef refugia from global warming and acidification, at least for the coming decades. Such differential sensitivities along the latitudinal gradient of the Red Sea require differential solutions and management. In an effort to identify the appropriate solutions to conserve and maintain resilience of these reefs along a latitudinal gradient, we used a SWOT analysis (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) to frame the present situation and to propose policy solutions as useful planning procedures. We highlight the need for immediate action to secure the northern sections of the Red Sea as a coral reef climate change refuge by management and removal of local stressors. There is a need to strengthen the scientific knowledge base for proper management and to encourage regional collaboration on environmental issues. Based on scientific data, solutions such as marine protected areas, fishing regulation, and reef restoration approaches were ranked for five distinct latitudinal sections in the Red Sea and levels of interventions are recommended.
Global environmental change has the potential to disrupt well established species interactions, with impacts on nutrient cycling and ecosystem function. On coral reefs, fish living within the branches of coral colonies can promote coral performance, and it has been hypothesized that the enhanced water flow and nutrients provided by fish to corals could ameliorate coral bleaching. The aim of this study was to evaluate the influence of small, aggregating damselfish on the health of their host corals (physiology, recovery, and survival) before, during, and after a thermal-bleaching event. When comparing coral colonies with and without fish, those with resident fish exhibited higher Symbiodinium densities and chlorophyll in both field and experimentally-induced bleaching conditions, and higher protein concentrations in field colonies. Additionally, colonies with damselfish in aquaria exhibited both higher photosynthetic efficiency (FV/FM) during bleaching stress and post-bleaching recovery, compared to uninhabited colonies. These results demonstrate that symbiotic damselfishes, and the services they provide, translate into measureable impacts on coral tissue, and can influence coral bleaching susceptibility/resilience and recovery. By mediating how external abiotic stressors influence coral colony health, damselfish can affect the functional responses of these interspecific interactions in a warming ocean.
Sexually produced larvae are used in various fields of coral research. Because the vast majority of scleractinians reproduces only on one or few occasions per year through simultaneous release of gametes, and because an ex situspawning induction is still very hard to achieve, great efforts are required to obtain planula larvae. Brooding corals have been used to harvest planulae although their larvae often differ in various traits from most spawning corals, e.g., in settlement behavior. Other cnidarians, such as Aiptasia spp., have been substituting for scleractinians in many aspects of coral research. However, organisms such as Aiptasia differ strongly from scleractinians, thus limiting the transferability of obtained results. This study examines the potential of Leptastrea purpurea as a reliable source of larvae for coral research. Larval output as well as settlement behavior of planulae was investigated. Our results show that colonies of L. purpurea released a daily average of 3.7 (±0.2) larvae during a period of 65 days, thus allowing continual access to planula larvae. We collected a total of 58127 larvae from our broodstock of 243 colonies. Larval settlement is induced by the same and/or similar cues as in many spawning species which increases the transferability of conclusions. We discuss the utility of L. purpurea for research on scleractinian physiology, ecology and larval settlement and conclude that L. purpurea is a well-suited organism to accelerate progress in many fields of coral research.