Divergent recovery trajectories of intertidal and subtidal coral communities highlight habitat-specific recovery dynamics following bleaching in an extreme macrotidal reef environment

P. Elias Speelman, Michael Parger, Verena Schoepf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)

Abstract

Coral reefs face an uncertain future punctuated by recurring climate-induced disturbances. Understanding how reefs can recover from and reassemble after mass bleaching events is therefore important to predict their responses and persistence in a rapidly changing ocean. On naturally extreme reefs characterized by strong daily temperature variability, coral heat tolerance can vary significantly over small spatial gradients but it remains poorly understood how this impacts bleaching resilience and recovery dynamics, despite their importance as resilience hotspots and potential refugia. In the macrotidal Kimberley region in NW Australia, the 2016 global mass bleaching event had a strong habitat-specific impact on intertidal and subtidal coral communities at our study site: corals in the thermally variable intertidal bleached less severely and recovered within six months, while 68% of corals in the moderately variable subtidal died. We therefore conducted benthic surveys 3.5 years after the bleaching event to determine potential changes in benthic cover and coral community composition. In the subtidal, we documented substantial increases in algal cover and live coral cover had not fully recovered to pre-bleaching levels. Furthermore, the subtidal coral community shifted from being dominated by branching Acropora corals with a competitive life history strategy to opportunistic, weedy Pocillopora corals which likely has implications for the functioning and stress resilience of this novel coral community. In contrast, no shifts in algal and live coral cover or coral community composition occurred in the intertidal. These findings demonstrate that differences in coral heat tolerance across small spatial scales can have large consequences for bleaching resilience and that spatial patchiness in recovery trajectories and community reassembly after bleaching might be a common feature on thermally variable reefs. Our findings further confirm that reefs adapted to high daily temperature variability play a key role as resilience hotspots under current climate conditions, but their ability to do so may be limited under intensifying ocean warming.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere15987
Number of pages26
JournalPEERJ
Volume11
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2023

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