Linking population size structure, heat stress and bleaching responses in a subtropical endemic coral

Springer Science and Business Media LLC
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Coral Reefs, 2021, 40, (3), pp. 777-790
Issue Date:
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Anthropocene coral reefs are faced with increasingly severe marine heatwaves and mass coral bleaching mortality events. The ensuing demographic changes to coral assemblages can have long-term impacts on reef community organisation. Thus, understanding the dynamics of subtropical scleractinian coral populations is essential to predict their recovery or extinction post-disturbance. Here we present a 10-yr demographic assessment of a subtropical endemic coral, Pocillopora aliciae (Schmidt-Roach et al. in Zootaxa 3626:576–582, 2013) from the Solitary Islands Marine Park, eastern Australia, paired with long-term temperature records. These coral populations are regularly affected by storms, undergo seasonal thermal variability, and are increasingly impacted by severe marine heatwaves. We examined the demographic processes governing the persistence of these populations using inference from size-frequency distributions based on log-transformed planar area measurements of 7196 coral colonies. Specifically, the size-frequency distribution mean, coefficient of variation, skewness, kurtosis, and coral density were applied to describe population dynamics. Generalised Linear Mixed Effects Models were used to determine temporal trends and test demographic responses to heat stress. Temporal variation in size-frequency distributions revealed various population processes, from recruitment pulses and cohort growth, to bleaching impacts and temperature dependencies. Sporadic recruitment pulses likely support population persistence, illustrated in 2010 by strong positively skewed size-frequency distributions and the highest density of juvenile corals measured during the study. Increasing mean colony size over the following 6 yr indicates further cohort growth of these recruits. Severe heat stress in 2016 resulted in mass bleaching mortality and a 51% decline in coral density. Moderate heat stress in the following years was associated with suppressed P. aliciae recruitment and a lack of early recovery, marked by an exponential decrease of juvenile density (i.e. recruitment) with increasing heat stress. Here, population reliance on sporadic recruitment and susceptibility to heat stress underpin the vulnerability of subtropical coral assemblages to climate change.
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