Continued growth of tourism has led to concerns about direct and indirect impacts on the ecology of coral reefs and ultimate sustainability of these environments under such pressure. This research assessed impacts of reef walking by tourists on a relatively pristine reef flat community associated with an ‘ecoresort’ on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Heavily walked areas had lower abundances of live hard coral but greater amounts of dead coral and sediment. Abundances of macroalgae were not affected between sites. Coral-associated butterflyfish were less abundant and less diverse in more trampled sites. A manipulative experiment showed handling holothurians on reef walks had lasting negative impacts. This is the first study to show potential impacts of such handling on holothurians. Ecological impacts of reef walking are weighed against sociocultural benefits of a first hand experience in nature.
The southern subarea of the Caribbean Sea Large Marine Ecosystem encompasses most of the continental and island coasts of Venezuela, as well as Trinidad, Tobago, Bonaire, Curacao, Aruba and the northeastern continental coast of Colombia in the Caribbean. The subarea is the only area of the Caribbean Sea LME (CSLME) with an important upwelling process that determines its very high productivity, especially in the eastern region of Venezuela. It generates a big impact over the ecological conditions of the rest of the Caribbean Sea LME, mainly over the biological productivity. However, extreme changes of climatic conditions have weakened upwelling in several years during the last two decades, with severe consequences in the total fish production of Venezuela and the southern subarea of the Caribbean Sea Large Marine Ecosystem. The crisis of the sardine in Venezuela is perhaps the clearest example of it. Another contribution of the southern subarea of the Caribbean Sea LME is the high biodiversity of marine fauna and flora that appears in numerous coral reefs, seagrass meadows and mangroves in the region. Unfortunately, several factors threaten the health and population sizes of some taxonomic groups. The corals are among the most affected, with losses of significant live coral coverage at all the reefs of the southern subarea, similar to the rest of the Caribbean region. Even when the governance of the southern subarea of the Caribbean Sea LME has many environmental laws and institutions that are charged with applying these laws, the latter are not appropriately enforced. If this situation does not change, the sustainability of the southern subarea will be at risk.
Degradation of coastal water quality in the form of low dissolved oxygen levels (hypoxia) can harm biodiversity, ecosystem function, and human wellbeing. Extreme hypoxic conditions along the coast, leading to what are often referred to as “dead zones,” are known primarily from temperate regions. However, little is known about the potential threat of hypoxia in the tropics, even though the known risk factors, including eutrophication and elevated temperatures, are common. Here we document an unprecedented hypoxic event on the Caribbean coast of Panama and assess the risk of dead zones to coral reefs worldwide. The event caused coral bleaching and massive mortality of corals and other reef-associated organisms, but observed shifts in community structure combined with laboratory experiments revealed that not all coral species are equally sensitive to hypoxia. Analyses of global databases showed that coral reefs are associated with more than half of the known tropical dead zones worldwide, with >10% of all coral reefs at elevated risk for hypoxia based on local and global risk factors. Hypoxic events in the tropics and associated mortality events have likely been underreported, perhaps by an order of magnitude, because of the lack of local scientific capacity for their detection. Monitoring and management plans for coral reef resilience should incorporate the growing threat of coastal hypoxia and include support for increased detection and research capacity.
Understanding range limits is critical to predicting species responses to climate change. Subtropical environments, where many species overlap at their range margins, are cooler, more light-limited and variable than tropical environments. It is thus likely that species respond variably to these multi-stressor regimes and that factors other than mean climatic conditions drive biodiversity patterns. Here, we tested these hypotheses for scleractinian corals at their high-latitude range limits in eastern Australia and investigated the role of mean climatic conditions and of parameters linked to abiotic stress in explaining the distribution and abundance of different groups of species. We found that environmental drivers varied among taxa and were predominantly linked to abiotic stress. The distribution and abundance of tropical species and gradients in species richness (alpha diversity) and turnover (beta diversity) were best explained by light limitation, whereas minimum temperatures and temperature fluctuations best explained gradients in subtropical species, species nestedness and functional diversity. Variation in community structure (considering species composition and abundance) was most closely linked to the combined thermal and light regime. Our study demonstrates the role of abiotic stress in controlling the distribution of species towards their high-latitude range limits and suggests that, at biogeographic transition zones, robust predictions of the impacts of climate change require approaches that account for various aspects of physiological stress and for species abundances and characteristics. These findings support the hypothesis that abiotic stress controls high-latitude range limits and caution that projections solely based on mean temperature could underestimate species’ vulnerabilities to climate change.
Corals on the reef corridor of the southwestern Gulf of Mexico have evolved on a terrigenous shallow continental shelf under the influence of several natural river systems. As a result, water turbidity on these reefs can be high, with visibility as low as < 1 m, depending on reef location and season. Using a presence-absence species database from field surveys, literature search, and satellite data on sea surface temperature, turbidity and chlorophyll-a, the coral species composition and environmental variables were analyzed for the three main reef systems of the reef corridor of the southwestern Gulf of Mexico. Completeness of the data set was assessed using species accumulation curves and non-parametric estimators of species richness. Differences in coral assemblages’ composition between the reef systems were investigated using univariate (ANOVA) and multivariate (nMDS, ANOSIM, SIMPER) analyses and the relationship between the assemblages and environmental data was assessed using a forward selection process in canonical correspondence analysis (CCA) to eliminate non-significant environmental variables. The northern and central Veracruz reef systems share a similar number of coral species (p= 0.78 mult. comp.) and both showed higher species richness than the southern system (p< 0.001 mult. comp.). In terms of the assemblages’ structure, significant differences were found (ANOSIM R= 0.3, p= 0.001) with larger average dissimilitude between north-south (75.4% SIMPER) and central-south (74.2%) than north-central (27%) comparisons. Only environmental variables related to water turbidity and productivity were significant on the final CCA configuration, which showed a gradient of increasing turbidity from north to south. Reef geomorphology and the effect of turbidity help explain differences in coral assemblages’ composition. More studies are necessary to establish if turbidity could function as a refuge for future environmental stress. Each Veracruz reef system is at the same time unique and shares a pool of coral species. To protect these ecosystems it is necessary to effectively manage water quality and consider coral diversity on the reef corridor of the southwestern Gulf of Mexico.
During 2015–2016, record temperatures triggered a pan-tropical episode of coral bleaching, the third global-scale event since mass bleaching was first documented in the 1980s. Here we examine how and why the severity of recurrent major bleaching events has varied at multiple scales, using aerial and underwater surveys of Australian reefs combined with satellite-derived sea surface temperatures. The distinctive geographic footprints of recurrent bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998, 2002 and 2016 were determined by the spatial pattern of sea temperatures in each year. Water quality and fishing pressure had minimal effect on the unprecedented bleaching in 2016, suggesting that local protection of reefs affords little or no resistance to extreme heat. Similarly, past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of bleaching in 2016. Consequently, immediate global action to curb future warming is essential to secure a future for coral reefs.
Global warming is predicted to drive preferential survival of warm adapted genotypes that have migrated to cooler locations, and result in an overall decline in genetic diversity due to bleaching-related mortality. Population genomic analysis of Acropora millepora on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) revealed that most populations were demographically distinct with preferential southward migration from lower (warmer) to higher (cooler) latitudes. Still, no recent increase in southward migration was detectable, and predicted migration rates remained closely correlated with those derived from a biophysical model based on ocean currents. There was also no evidence of recent declines in genetic diversity. A multi-locus adaptation model suggested that standing genetic variation spread across latitudes might be sufficient to fuel continuous adaptation of A. millepora metapopulation over 100-200 years of gradual warming. However, the model also predicts increase in severity of local mortality events induced by thermal anomalies, such as high bleaching-induced mortality in the northern GBR in 2016.
Climate change is one of the greatest threats to the long-term maintenance of coral-dominated tropical ecosystems, and has received considerable attention over the past two decades. Coral bleaching and associated mortality events, which are predicted to become more frequent and intense, can alter the balance of different elements that are responsible for coral reef growth and maintenance. The geomorphic impacts of coral mass mortality have received relatively little attention, particularly questions concerning temporal recovery of reef carbonate production and the factors that promote resilience of reef growth potential. Here, we track the biological carbonate budgets of inner Seychelles reefs from 1994 to 2014, spanning the 1998 global bleaching event when these reefs lost more than 90% of coral cover. All 21 reefs had positive budgets in 1994, but in 2005 budgets were predominantly negative. By 2014, carbonate budgets on seven reefs were comparable with 1994, but on all reefs where an ecological regime shift to macroalgal dominance occurred, budgets remained negative through 2014. Reefs with higher massive coral cover, lower macroalgae cover and lower excavating parrotfish biomass in 1994 were more likely to have positive budgets post-bleaching. If mortality of corals from the 2016 bleaching event is as severe as that of 1998, our predictions based on past trends would suggest that six of eight reefs with positive budgets in 2014 would still have positive budgets by 2030. Our results highlight that reef accretion and framework maintenance cannot be assumed from the ecological state alone, and that managers should focus on conserving aspects of coral reefs that support resilient carbonate budgets.
The symbiotic association between the coral animal and its endosymbiotic dinoflagellate partner Symbiodinium is central to the success of corals. However, an array of other microorganisms associated with coral (i.e., Bacteria, Archaea, Fungi, and viruses) have a complex and intricate role in maintaining homeostasis between corals and Symbiodinium. Corals are sensitive to shifts in the surrounding environmental conditions. One of the most widely reported responses of coral to stressful environmental conditions is bleaching. During this event, corals expel Symbiodinium cells from their gastrodermal tissues upon experiencing extended seawater temperatures above their thermal threshold. An array of other environmental stressors can also destabilize the coral microbiome, resulting in compromised health of the host, which may include disease and mortality in the worst scenario. However, the exact mechanisms by which the coral microbiome supports coral health and increases resilience are poorly understood. Earlier studies of coral microbiology proposed a coral probiotic hypothesis, wherein a dynamic relationship exists between corals and their symbiotic microorganisms, selecting for the coral holobiont that is best suited for the prevailing environmental conditions. Here, we discuss the microbial-host relationships within the coral holobiont, along with their potential roles in maintaining coral health. We propose the term BMC (Beneficial Microorganisms for Corals) to define (specific) symbionts that promote coral health. This term and concept are analogous to the term Plant Growth Promoting Rhizosphere (PGPR), which has been widely explored and manipulated in the agricultural industry for microorganisms that inhabit the rhizosphere and directly or indirectly promote plant growth and development through the production of regulatory signals, antibiotics and nutrients. Additionally, we propose and discuss the potential mechanisms of the effects of BMC on corals, suggesting strategies for the use of this knowledge to manipulate the microbiome, reversing dysbiosis to restore and protect coral reefs. This may include developing and using BMC consortia as environmental “probiotics” to improve coral resistance after bleaching events and/or the use of BMC with other strategies such as human-assisted acclimation/adaption to shifting environmental conditions.
Many ecosystems around the world are rapidly deteriorating due to both local and global pressures, and perhaps none so precipitously as coral reefs. Management of coral reefs through maintenance (e.g., marine-protected areas, catchment management to improve water quality), restoration, as well as global and national governmental agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., the 2015 Paris Agreement) is critical for the persistence of coral reefs. Despite these initiatives, the health and abundance of corals reefs are rapidly declining and other solutions will soon be required. We have recently discussed options for using assisted evolution (i.e., selective breeding, assisted gene flow, conditioning or epigenetic programming, and the manipulation of the coral microbiome) as a means to enhance environmental stress tolerance of corals and the success of coral reef restoration efforts. The 2014-2016 global coral bleaching event has sharpened the focus on such interventionist approaches. We highlight the necessity for consideration of alternative (e.g., hybrid) ecosystem states, discuss traits of resilient corals and coral reef ecosystems, and propose a decision tree for incorporating assisted evolution into restoration initiatives to enhance climate resilience of coral reefs.