Disturbances drive changes in coral community assemblages and coral calcification capacity

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Abstract

Anthropogenic environmental change has increased coral reef disturbance regimes in recent decades, altering the structure and function of many coral reefs globally. In this study, we used coral community survey data collected from 1996 to 2015 to evaluate reef-scale coral calcification capacity (CCC) dynamics with respect to recorded pulse disturbances for 121 reef sites in the Main Hawaiian Islands and Mo'orea (French Polynesia) in the Pacific and the Florida Keys Reef Tract and St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) in the western Atlantic. CCC remained relatively high in the Main Hawaiian Islands in the absence of recorded widespread disturbances; declined and subsequently recovered in Mo'orea following a crown-of-thorns sea star outbreak, coral bleaching, and major cyclone; decreased and remained low following coral bleaching in the Florida Keys Reef Tract; and decreased following coral bleaching and disease in St. John. Individual coral taxa have variable calcification rates and susceptibility to disturbances because of their differing life-history strategies. As a result, temporal changes in CCC in this study were driven by shifts in both overall coral cover and coral community composition. Analysis of our results considering coral life-history strategies showed that weedy corals generally increased their contributions to CCC over time while the contribution of competitive corals decreased. Shifts in contributions by stress-tolerant and generalist corals to CCC were more variable across regions. The increasing frequency and intensity of disturbances under 21st century global change therefore has the potential to drive lower and more variable CCC because of the increasing dominance of weedy and some stress-tolerant corals.

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Courtney, T. A., Barnes, B. B., Chollett, I., Elahi, R., Gross, K., Guest, J. R., … Andersson, A. J. (2020). Disturbances drive changes in coral community assemblages and coral calcification capacity. Ecosphere, 11(4). https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.3066

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