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How will coral reef fish communities respond to climate-driven disturbances? Insight from landscape-scale perturbations

Abstract

Global climate change is rapidly altering disturbance regimes in many ecosystems including coral reefs, yet the long-term impacts of these changes on ecosystem structure and function are difficult to predict. A major ecosystem service provided by coral reefs is the provisioning of physical habitat for other organisms, and consequently, many of the effects of climate change on coral reefs will be mediated by their impacts on habitat structure. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand the independent and combined effects of coral mortality and loss of physical habitat on reef-associated biota. Here, we use a unique series of events affecting the coral reefs around the Pacific island of Moorea, French Polynesia to differentiate between the impacts of coral mortality and the degradation of physical habitat on the structure of reef fish communities. We found that, by removing large amounts of physical habitat, a tropical cyclone had larger impacts on reef fish communities than an outbreak of coral-eating sea stars that caused widespread coral mortality but left the physical structure intact. In addition, the impacts of declining structural complexity on reef fish assemblages accelerated as structure became increasingly rare. Structure provided by dead coral colonies can take up to decades to erode following coral mortality, and, consequently, our results suggest that predictions based on short-term studies are likely to grossly underestimate the long-term impacts of coral decline on reef fish communities.

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Acknowledgments

We thank K. Seydel, V. Moriarty, J. Nielsen and C. Gotschalk for outstanding technical assistance. We thank Pete Edmunds for providing the coral cover data and for useful comments. We also thank four anonymous reviewers and the handling editor whose constructive comments greatly improved the manuscript. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation (OCE 12-36905 and earlier awards) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. This is a contribution of the NSF Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research Site and Contribution No. 202 of the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station.

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Correspondence to Thomas C. Adam.

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Communicated by Jonathan Shurin.

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442_2014_3011_MOESM1_ESM.pdf

Supplementary material 1 Supporting Information legends Table S1. Fish functional groups Table S2. Competing models describing the relationships between live coral and structure and attributes of the reef fish assemblage Fig. S1. Community structure of fishes on the undisturbed back reefs and fringing reefs of Moorea Fig. S2. Changes in the total abundance of fishes Fig. S3. Changes in the species richness of fishes Fig. S4. Dynamics of invertebrate consumers, planktivores and piscivores(PDF 491 kb)

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Adam, T.C., Brooks, A.J., Holbrook, S.J. et al. How will coral reef fish communities respond to climate-driven disturbances? Insight from landscape-scale perturbations. Oecologia 176, 285–296 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-3011-x

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Keywords

  • Habitat loss
  • Resilience
  • Storms
  • Acanthaster planci
  • Coral bleaching
  • Climate change