Phase shifts, alternative states, and the unprecedented convergence of two reef systems

  • Aronson R
  • Macintyre I
  • Wapnick C
 et al. 
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Initial conditions can generate differences in the biotic composition of spatially disjunct communities, but intense, large-scale perturbations have the potential to reduce or eliminate those historical differences. The latter possibility is of particular concern with respect to coral reefs, which have undergone dramatic changes in the last 25-30 years. This paper reports a case in which two reef systems with different biotic histories were recently perturbed to a single, novel state.We compared millennial-scale records of species dominance from reefs in Bahia Almirante, a coastal lagoon in northwestern Panama, to previously published records from reefs in the shelf lagoon of Belize. Reef cores extracted from Bahia Almirante at 5-10 in water depth revealed that the Panamanian reefs were persistently dissimilar from the Belizean reefs for at least 2000-3000 years prior to the last several decades. The Panamanian reefs were dominated continuously by branching finger corals, Porites spp. (primarily P. furcata). Shifts from the Porites-dominated state to dominance by other coral species were rare, were restricted to small areas, and lasted for decades to centuries. The Belizean reefs were dominated continuously by the staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis in the same depth range during the same period. Excursions from the Acropora-dominated state were again rare and spatially localized. Populations of Ac. cervicornis in the Belizean lagoon were nearly extirpated by an outbreak of white-band disease in the late 1980s, and changes in water quality were apparently detrimental to branching Porites in Bahia Almirante in recent decades. These large-scale perturbations caused the two reef systems to converge on a third, historically unprecedented state: dominance by the lettuce coral Agaricia tenuifolia. Ag. tenuifolia possesses life-history attributes and environmental tolerances that enabled it to become dominant in both disturbed ecosystems. Although the two phase shifts to Ag. tenuifolia differed in both their general mechanisms and specific causes, they had the effect of eliminating the salient difference in benthic composition between the Panamanian and Belizean reefs. The changes in species composition thus obliterated the influence of several thousand years of reef history.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Acropora
  • Agaricia
  • Alternative states
  • Belize
  • Coral reef
  • Holocene
  • Paleoecology
  • Panama
  • Phase shift
  • Porites
  • Species dominance
  • Species turnover

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  • Richard B. Aronson

  • Ian G. Macintyre

  • Cheryl M. Wapnick

  • Matthew W. O'Neill

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