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Globally, many temperate marine communities have experienced significant temperature increases over recent decades in the form of gradual warming and heatwaves. As a result, these communities are shifting towards increasingly subtropical and tropical species compositions. Expanding coral populations have been reported from several temperate reef ecosystems along warming coastlines; these changes have been attributed to direct effects of gradual warming over decades. In contrast, increases in coral populations following shorter-term extreme warming events have rarely been documented. In this study, we compared coral populations on 17 temperate reefs in Western Australia before (2005/06) and after (2013) multiple marine heatwaves (2010–2012) affected the entire coastline. We hypothesised that coral communities would expand and change as a consequence of increasing local populations and recruitment of warm-affinity species. We found differences in coral community structure over time, driven primarily by a fourfold increase of one local species, Plesiastrea versipora, rather than recruitment of warm-affinity species. Coral populations became strongly dominated by small size classes, indicative of recent increased recruitment or recruit survival. These changes were likely facilitated by competitive release of corals from dominant temperate seaweeds, which perished during the heatwaves, rather than driven by direct temperature effects. Overall, as corals are inherently warm-water taxa not commonly associated with seaweed-dominated temperate reefs, these findings are consistent with a net tropicalisation. Our study draws attention to processes other than gradual warming that also influence the trajectory of temperate reefs in a changing ocean.
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