Algal Dynamics: Alternate Stable States of Reefs in the Eastern Tropical Pacific

  • Peggy FongEmail author
  • Tyler B. Smith
  • Ranjan Muthukrishnan
Part of the Coral Reefs of the World book series (CORW, volume 8)


Algae from two kingdoms and four major phyla form productive benthic communities that play key ecological roles on coral reefs of the eastern tropical Pacific (ETP). The diversity of algae that comprise these communities is being actively explored throughout the region, with new species still being discovered. Due to its physical setting, there are several distinct algal habitats in the ETP, including reef crests dominated by crustose coralline algae and algal turfs, reef flats that support a higher abundance of foliose macroalgae, unconsolidated accumulations of dead coral rubble that may support rhodoliths and cryptic macroalgae, and deeper-water refuges from herbivory dominated by more of the palatable forms of macroalgae rarely found on reefs. Past work has identified a number of ecological processes that control algal populations and communities at play in the ETP, but research elucidating their relative roles is still limited in this region. Recent work suggests that these reefs are supported by allochthonous nutrient supplies such as upwelling and thermocline shoaling, though reduced light during these events may limit productivity to shallow reef zones. Though at least partially sheltered from major disturbances that structure other reef systems, such as hurricanes and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns sea stars, reefs of the ETP are strongly affected by sea surface temperature extremes associated with El-Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) leading to major coral mortality with the opening of space for colonization by algae. Biotic processes that control algal communities include herbivory and competition with coral, both of which limit algal proliferation and may enhance recovery after disturbance. However, facilitative interactions within algal communities, such as reduced herbivory and amelioration of nutrient limitation by internal recycling that act as positive feedbacks within areas dominated by algae, may stabilize algal communities after disturbance. There is some empirical and modeling evidence that suggests these processes may drive reefs of the ETP to display alternative stable states. This evidence includes a bifurcated pattern of recovery after ENSO disturbance, the patchy nature of this recovery within certain reefs, and the existence of stabilizing feedbacks that support resilience of both coral and algal states. Further, a simulation model (cellular automaton) of ETP reefs parameterized with experimentally-derived feedback relationships suggests these reefs exist under environmental conditions that produce bistability. However, much research is still needed to fully understand the physical and ecological processes that structure algal communities, and how these controls may shift with anthropogenic impacts.


Diversity Phase shifts Community stability Ecological processes Algal habitats 



We thank Peter W. Glynn for his continual mentorship, friendship, and intellectual stimulation that have kept us working together in the eastern tropical Pacific for so many years. And, of course, we greatly appreciate his sense of humor that transformed it from work to fun, and our group from colleagues into family. The National Science Foundation (Biological Oceanography) supported our work through grants to P.W.G. from 1984 to 2010. We are also grateful for the support of UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (P.F.), the University of the Virgin Islands’ Center for Marine and Environmental Studies (T.S.), and NSF’s GRFP (R.M.) for support. Our colleague Juan Maté efficiently facilitated our work in Panama, and Jordan Fong verified all literature citations.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peggy Fong
    • 1
    Email author
  • Tyler B. Smith
    • 2
  • Ranjan Muthukrishnan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of California Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Center for Marine and Environmental StudiesUniversity of the Virgin IslandsSt. ThomasUSA

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