Benthic communities at two remote Pacific coral reefs: effects of reef habitat, depth, and wave energy gradients on spatial patterns.
ABSTRACT: Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific are among the most remote coral reefs on the planet. Here we describe spatial patterns in their benthic communities across reef habitats and depths, and consider these in the context of oceanographic gradients. Benthic communities at both locations were dominated by calcifying organisms (54-86% cover), namely hard corals (20-74%) and crustose coralline algae (CCA) (10-36%). While turf algae were relatively common at both locations (8-22%), larger fleshy macroalgae were virtually absent at Kingman (<1%) and rare at Palmyra (0.7-9.3%). Hard coral cover was higher, but with low diversity, in more sheltered habitats such as Palmyra's backreef and Kingman's patch reefs. Almost exclusive dominance by slow-growing Porites on Kingman's patch reefs provides indirect evidence of competitive exclusion, probably late in a successional sequence. In contrast, the more exposed forereef habitats at both Kingman and Palmyra had higher coral diversity and were characterized by fast-growing corals (e.g., Acropora and Pocillopora), indicative of more dynamic environments. In general at both locations, soft coral cover increased with depth, likely reflecting increasingly efficient heterotrophic abilities. CCA and fleshy macroalgae cover decreased with depth, likely due to reduced light. Cover of other calcified macroalgae, predominantly Halimeda, increased with depth. This likely reflects the ability of many calcifying macroalgae to efficiently harvest light at deeper depths, in combination with an increased nutrient supply from upwelling promoting growth. At Palmyra, patterns of hard coral cover with depth were inconsistent, but cover peaked at mid-depths at Kingman. On Kingman's forereef, benthic community composition was strongly related to wave energy, with hard coral cover decreasing and becoming more spatially clustered with increased wave energy, likely as a result of physical damage leading to patches of coral in localized shelter. In contrast, the cover of turf algae at Kingman was positively related to wave energy, reflecting their ability to rapidly colonize newly available space. No significant patterns with wave energy were observed on Palmyra's forereef, suggesting that a more detailed model is required to study biophysical coupling there. Kingman, Palmyra, and other remote oceanic reefs provide interesting case studies to explore biophysical influences on benthic ecology and dynamics.
Project description:Microbes are key players in both healthy and degraded coral reefs. A combination of metagenomics, microscopy, culturing, and water chemistry were used to characterize microbial communities on four coral atolls in the Northern Line Islands, central Pacific. Kingman, a small uninhabited atoll which lies most northerly in the chain, had microbial and water chemistry characteristic of an open ocean ecosystem. On this atoll the microbial community was equally divided between autotrophs (mostly Prochlorococcus spp.) and heterotrophs. In contrast, Kiritimati, a large and populated ( approximately 5500 people) atoll, which is most southerly in the chain, had microbial and water chemistry characteristic of a near-shore environment. On Kiritimati, there were 10 times more microbial cells and virus-like particles in the water column and these microbes were dominated by heterotrophs, including a large percentage of potential pathogens. Culturable Vibrios were common only on Kiritimati. The benthic community on Kiritimati had the highest prevalence of coral disease and lowest coral cover. The middle atolls, Palmyra and Tabuaeran, had intermediate densities of microbes and viruses and higher percentages of autotrophic microbes than either Kingman or Kiritimati. The differences in microbial communities across atolls could reflect variation in 1) oceaonographic and/or hydrographic conditions or 2) human impacts associated with land-use and fishing. The fact that historically Kingman and Kiritimati did not differ strongly in their fish or benthic communities (both had large numbers of sharks and high coral cover) suggest an anthropogenic component in the differences in the microbial communities. Kingman is one of the world's most pristine coral reefs, and this dataset should serve as a baseline for future studies of coral reef microbes. Obtaining the microbial data set, from atolls is particularly important given the association of microbes in the ongoing degradation of coral reef ecosystems worldwide.
Project description:The Line Islands are calcium carbonate coral reef platforms located in iron-poor regions of the central Pacific. Natural terrestrial run-off of iron is non-existent and aerial deposition is extremely low. However, a number of ship groundings have occurred on these atolls. The reefs surrounding the shipwreck debris are characterized by high benthic cover of turf algae, macroalgae, cyanobacterial mats and corallimorphs, as well as particulate-laden, cloudy water. These sites also have very low coral and crustose coralline algal cover and are call black reefs because of the dark-colored benthic community and reduced clarity of the overlying water column. Here we use a combination of benthic surveys, chemistry, metagenomics and microcosms to investigate if and how shipwrecks initiate and maintain black reefs. Comparative surveys show that the live coral cover was reduced from 40 to 60% to <10% on black reefs on Millennium, Tabuaeran and Kingman. These three sites are relatively large (>0.75 km(2)). The phase shift occurs rapidly; the Kingman black reef formed within 3 years of the ship grounding. Iron concentrations in algae tissue from the Millennium black reef site were six times higher than in algae collected from reference sites. Metagenomic sequencing of the Millennium Atoll black reef-associated microbial community was enriched in iron-associated virulence genes and known pathogens. Microcosm experiments showed that corals were killed by black reef rubble through microbial activity. Together these results demonstrate that shipwrecks and their associated iron pose significant threats to coral reefs in iron-limited regions.
Project description:Coral reefs in the wider Caribbean declined in hard coral cover by ~80% since the 1970s, but spatiotemporal analyses for sub-regions are lacking. Here, we explored benthic change patterns in the Mexican Caribbean reefs through meta-analysis between 1978 and 2016 including 125 coral reef sites. Findings revealed that hard coral cover decreased from ~26% in the 1970s to 16% in 2016, whereas macroalgae cover increased to ~30% in 2016. Both groups showed high spatiotemporal variability. Hard coral cover declined in total by 12% from 1978 to 2004 but increased again by 5% between 2005 and 2016 indicating some coral recovery after the 2005 mass bleaching event and hurricane impacts. In 2016, more than 80% of studied reefs were dominated by macroalgae, while only 15% were dominated by hard corals. This stands in contrast to 1978 when all reef sites surveyed were dominated by hard corals. This study is among the first within the Caribbean region that reports local recovery in coral cover in the Caribbean, while other Caribbean reefs have failed to recover. Most Mexican Caribbean coral reefs are now no longer dominated by hard corals. In order to prevent further reef degradation, viable and reliable conservation alternatives are required.
Project description:To better understand the decline of one of earth's most biodiverse habitats, coral reefs, many survey programs employ regular photographs of the benthos. An emerging challenge is the time required to annotate the large volume of digital imagery generated by these surveys. Here, we leverage existing machine-learning tools (CoralNet) and develop new fit-to-purpose programs to process and score benthic photoquadrats using five years of data from the Smithsonian MarineGEO Network's biodiversity monitoring program at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize. Our analysis shows that scleractinian coral cover on forereef sites (at depths of 3-10 m) along our surveyed transects increased significantly from 6 to 13% during this period. More modest changes in macroalgae, turf algae, and sponge cover were also observed. Community-wide analysis confirmed a significant shift in benthic structure, and follow-up in situ surveys of coral demographics in 2019 revealed that the emerging coral communities are dominated by fast-recruiting and growing coral species belonging to the genera Agaricia and Porites. While the positive trajectory reported here is promising, Belizean reefs face persistent challenges related to overfishing and climate change. Open-source computational toolkits offer promise for increasing the efficiency of reef monitoring, and therefore our ability to assess the future of coral reefs in the face of rapid environmental change.
Project description:Most coral reefs have recently experienced acute changes in benthic community structure, generally involving dominance shifts from slow-growing hard corals to fast-growing benthic invertebrates and fleshy photosynthesizers. Besides overfishing, increased nutrification and sedimentation are important drivers of this process, which is well documented at landscape scales in the Caribbean and in the Indo-Pacific. However, small-scale processes that occur at the level of individual organisms remain poorly explored. In addition, the generality of coral reef decline models still needs to be verified on the vast realm of turbid-zone reefs. Here, we documented the outcome of interactions between an endangered Brazilian-endemic coral (Mussismilia braziliensis) and its most abundant contacting organisms (turf, cyanobacteria, corals, crustose coralline algae and foliose macroalgae). Our study was based on a long (2006-2016) series of high resolution data (fixed photoquadrats) acquired along a cross-shelf gradient that includes coastal unprotected reefs and offshore protected sites. The study region (Abrolhos Bank) comprises the largest and richest coralline complex in the South Atlantic, and a foremost example of a turbid-zone reef system with low diversity and expressive coral cover. Coral growth was significantly different between reefs. Coral-algae contacts predominated inshore, while cyanobacteria and turf contacts dominated offshore. An overall trend in positive coral growth was detected from 2009 onward in the inshore reef, whereas retraction in live coral tissue was observed offshore during this period. Turbidity (+) and cyanobacteria (-) were the best predictors of coral growth. Complimentary incubation experiments, in which treatments of Symbiodinium spp. from M. braziliensis colonies were subjected to cyanobacterial exudates, showed a negative effect of the exudate on the symbionts, demonstrating that cyanobacteria play an important role in coral tissue necrosis. Negative effects of cyanobacteria on living coral tissue may remain undetected from percent cover estimates gathered at larger spatial scales, as these ephemeral organisms tend to be rapidly replaced by longer-living macroalgae, or complex turf-like consortia. The cross-shelf trend of decreasing turbidity and macroalgae abundance suggests either a direct positive effect of turbidity on coral growth, or an indirect effect related to the higher inshore cover of foliose macroalgae, constraining cyanobacterial abundance. It is unclear whether the higher inshore macroalgal abundance (10-20% of reef cover) is a stable phase related to a long-standing high turbidity background, or a contemporary response to anthropogenic stress. Our results challenge the idea that high macroalgal cover is always associated with compromised coral health, as the baselines for turbid zone reefs may derive sharply from those of coral-dominated reefs that dwell under oligotrophic conditions.
Project description:Effective conservation requires rigorous baselines of pristine conditions to assess the impacts of human activities and to evaluate the efficacy of management. Most coral reefs are moderately to severely degraded by local human activities such as fishing and pollution as well as global change, hence it is difficult to separate local from global effects. To this end, we surveyed coral reefs on uninhabited atolls in the northern Line Islands to provide a baseline of reef community structure, and on increasingly populated atolls to document changes associated with human activities. We found that top predators and reef-building organisms dominated unpopulated Kingman and Palmyra, while small planktivorous fishes and fleshy algae dominated the populated atolls of Tabuaeran and Kiritimati. Sharks and other top predators overwhelmed the fish assemblages on Kingman and Palmyra so that the biomass pyramid was inverted (top-heavy). In contrast, the biomass pyramid at Tabuaeran and Kiritimati exhibited the typical bottom-heavy pattern. Reefs without people exhibited less coral disease and greater coral recruitment relative to more inhabited reefs. Thus, protection from overfishing and pollution appears to increase the resilience of reef ecosystems to the effects of global warming.
Project description:Spatial patterns of coral reef benthic communities vary across a range of broad-scale biogeographical levels to fine-scale local habitat conditions. This study described spatial patterns of coral reef benthic communities spanning across the 536-km coast of Kenya. Thirty-eight reef sites representing different geographical zones within an array of habitats and management levels were assessed by benthic cover, coral genera and coral colony size classes. Three geographical zones were identified along the latitudinal gradient based on their benthic community composition. Hard coral dominated the three zones with highest cover in the south and Porites being the most abundant genus. Almost all 15 benthic variables differed significantly between geographical zones. The interaction of habitat factors and management levels created a localised pattern within each zone. Four habitats were identified based on their similarity in benthic community composition; 1. Deep-Exposed Patch reef in Reserve areas (DEPR), 2. Deep-Exposed Fringing reefs in Unprotected areas (DEFU), 3. Shallow Fringing and Lagoon reefs in Protected and Reserve areas (SFLPR) and 4. Shallow Patch and Channel reefs (SPC). DEPR was found in the north zone only and its benthic community was predominantly crustose coralline algae. DEFU was found in central and south zones mainly dominated by soft corals, Acropora, Montipora, juvenile corals and small colonies of adult corals. SFLPR was dominated by macroalgae and turf algae and was found in north and central zones. SPC was found across all geographical zones with a benthic community dominated by hard corals of mostly large colonies of Porites and Echinopora. The north zone exhibits habitat types that support resistance properties, the south supports recovery processes and central zone acts as an ecological corridor between zones. Identifying habitats with different roles in reef resilience is useful information for marine spatial planning and supports the process of designing effective marine protected areas.
Project description:Benthic cyanobacterial mats (BCMs) are impacting coral reefs worldwide. However, the factors and mechanisms driving their proliferation are unclear. We conducted a multi-year survey around the Caribbean island of Curaçao, which revealed highest BCM abundance on sheltered reefs close to urbanised areas. Reefs with high BCM abundance were also characterised by high benthic cover of macroalgae and low cover of corals. Nutrient concentrations in the water-column were consistently low, but markedly increased just above substrata (both sandy and hard) covered with BCMs. This was true for sites with both high and low BCM coverage, suggesting that BCM growth is stimulated by a localised, substrate-linked release of nutrients from the microbial degradation of organic matter. This hypothesis was supported by a higher organic content in sediments on reefs with high BCM coverage, and by an in situ experiment which showed that BCMs grew within days on sediments enriched with organic matter (Spirulina). We propose that nutrient runoff from urbanised areas stimulates phototrophic blooms and enhances organic matter concentrations on the reef. This organic matter is transported by currents and settles on the seabed at sites with low hydrodynamics. Subsequently, nutrients released from the organic matter degradation fuel the growth of BCMs. Improved management of nutrients generated on land should lower organic loading of sediments and other benthos (e.g. turf and macroalgae) to reduce BCM proliferation on coral reefs.
Project description:The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) are considered to be among the most pristine coral reef ecosystems remaining on the planet. These reefs naturally contain a high percent cover of algal functional groups with relatively low coral abundance and exhibit thriving fish communities dominated by top predators. Despite their highly protected status, these reefs are at risk from both direct and indirect anthropogenic sources. This study provides the first comprehensive data on percent coverage of algae, coral, and non-coral invertebrates at the species level, and investigates spatial diversity patterns across the archipelago to document benthic communities before further environmental changes occur in response to global warming and ocean acidification. Monitoring studies show that non-calcified macroalgae cover a greater percentage of substrate than corals on many high latitude reef sites. Forereef habitats in atoll systems often contain high abundances of the green macroalga Microdictyon setchellianum and the brown macroalga Lobophora variegata, yet these organisms were uncommon in forereefs of non-atoll systems. Species of the brown macroalgal genera Padina, Sargassum, and Stypopodium and the red macroalgal genus Laurencia became increasingly common in the two northernmost atolls of the island chain but were uncommon components of more southerly islands. Conversely, the scleractinian coral Porites lobata was common on forereefs at southern islands but less common at northern islands. Currently accepted paradigms of what constitutes a "healthy" reef may not apply to the subtropical NWHI, and metrics used to gauge reef health (e.g., high coral cover) need to be reevaluated.
Project description:Accumulative disturbances can erode a coral reef's resilience, often leading to replacement of scleractinian corals by macroalgae or other non-coral organisms. These degraded reef systems have been mostly described based on changes in the composition of the reef benthos, and there is little understanding of how such changes are influenced by, and in turn influence, other components of the reef ecosystem. This study investigated the spatial variation in benthic communities on fringing reefs around the inner Seychelles islands. Specifically, relationships between benthic composition and the underlying substrata, as well as the associated fish assemblages were assessed. High variability in benthic composition was found among reefs, with a gradient from high coral cover (up to 58%) and high structural complexity to high macroalgae cover (up to 95%) and low structural complexity at the extremes. This gradient was associated with declining species richness of fishes, reduced diversity of fish functional groups, and lower abundance of corallivorous fishes. There were no reciprocal increases in herbivorous fish abundances, and relationships with other fish functional groups and total fish abundance were weak. Reefs grouping at the extremes of complex coral habitats or low-complexity macroalgal habitats displayed markedly different fish communities, with only two species of benthic invertebrate feeding fishes in greater abundance in the macroalgal habitat. These results have negative implications for the continuation of many coral reef ecosystem processes and services if more reefs shift to extreme degraded conditions dominated by macroalgae.