Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 28, Issue 14, pp 3925–3949 | Cite as

Rapid decline of a relatively high latitude coral assemblage at Weizhou Island, northern South China Sea

  • Wanjun Yu
  • Wenhuan Wang
  • Kefu YuEmail author
  • Yinghui Wang
  • Xueyong Huang
  • Rongyong Huang
  • Zhiheng Liao
  • Shendong Xu
  • Xiaoyan Chen
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Coastal and marine biodiversity


“Refuge theory” suggests that global warming would be beneficial to corals in high latitude waters. In theory, then, the Weizhou Island reef (21°00′–21°10′N, 109°00′–109°15′E), which is located in a relatively high latitude area in the northern South China Sea, is a refuge for corals under global warming. Yet, the corals here have degenerated significantly. We investigated the ecological status of the Weizhou Island reef in 2015 and recorded 11 families, 22 genera, and 41 coral species. The mean living coral cover has decreased from ~ 42% in 1984 to ~ 10% in 2015 and there are many dead Acropora in the study area, especially at the reef flat. Coral assemblage structure has undergone degradation with the dominant group shifting from high complexity branching, foliaceous and massive colonies to a simpler group of massive morphologies. The only sign indicating the corals here benefiting from global warming is the occurrence of a large amount of juvenile Porites lutea (31.91% of the total population), which represents the recovery potential of the Weizhou Island reefs. Further analysis concludes that the main reason for the rapid degeneration is escalating anthropogenic impact, such as seawater pollution, unsustainable tourism activities, ongoing overfishing, all of which degrade the local ecological environment. It seems that intensive anthropogenic activities have weakened the “refuge” function significantly. Decreasing living coral cover as well as degraded assemblage structure all suggest that Weizhou Island offers limited potential as refuge habitat for corals in the context of global warming and intensive human activities.


Coral reef Relatively high latitude Refuge Ecological decline Anthropogenic activities South China Sea 



This research was funded by the National Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 91428203), the Guangxi scientific projects (Grant Nos. AD17129063 and AA17204074), and the Bagui Fellowship from Guangxi Province of China. We thank Hainian Yu from the University of Queensland for English writing improvement.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Guangxi Laboratory on the Study of Coral Reefs in the South China SeaGuangxi UniversityNanningChina
  2. 2.Coral Reef Research Center of ChinaGuangxi UniversityNanningChina
  3. 3.School of Marine SciencesGuangxi UniversityNanningChina

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