Inshore coral reefs adjacent to the wet tropics in North Queensland, Australia, are regularly exposed to flood plumes from coastal river systems. Changes in the nature of these plumes have been linked to the declining health of coral reefs in the region. The effect of flood plumes on the health of inshore corals was investigated by quantifying aspects of the demography of populations of corymbose and digitate Acropora at three groups of Island reefs along a gradient of exposure and decreasing water quality (High Island >Frankland s >Fitzroy). The size-structures of colonies, the rates of sexual recruitment, and the growth and survival of juveniles, all varied among the Island reefs. Juvenile and adult sized colonies were far more abundant at the Fitzroy Island reefs, than at the High or Frankland Island reefs that were more exposed to flood plumes. Additionally, there were up to eight times as many sexual recruits at the Fitzroy Island reefs, compared with the High Island reefs. However, the rates of growth and survival of the juvenile sized corals at the Fitzroy Island reefs were lower than at the more exposed reefs. The comparatively low abundance of adult corals at the exposed reefs is most likely due to their histories of disturbance from crown-of-thorns and coral bleaching, but the lack of subsequent recovery due to their low levels of larval recruitment. If a stock-recruitment relationship is typical for these groups of reefs, then the low rates of recruitment may be linked to the low density of adult colonies. Alternately, direct or indirect effects of chronic exposure to poor water quality may have resulted in less suitable substrata for larval settlement. We discuss these results and provide examples of how information about population structure and dynamics can be used in simple matrix models to quantify the current and future health of populations of corals under various scenarios.
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