Searching for the best bet in life-strategy: A quantitative approach to individual performance and population dynamics in reef-building corals

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Journal Article
Ecological Complexity, 2015, 23 pp. 73 - 84
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© 2015 Elsevier B.V. Ecological signs of Earth's biosphere forewarn an alarming trajectory towards a global mass-extinction. Assessing species performance and susceptibilities to decline is essential to comprehend and reverse this trend. Yet it is challenging, given difficulties associated with quantifying individual and population processes that are variable across time, space, and life-stages. We describe a new approach to estimating and comparing species performances that combines empirical data, a novel theoretical consideration of population dynamics, and modern statistics. Our approach allows for a more realistic continuous representation of individual performances along development stages while taking into account non-linearity, and natural variability as captured by spatio-temporally replicated observations. We illustrate its application in a coral meta-assemblage composed of populations of the three major reef-building taxa Acropora, Pocillopora, Porites. Using a unique set of highly replicated observations of individual coral dynamics under various environmental conditions, we show how taxa differ in their investment in recruitment and size-specific aptitude for growth and survival, notably through different use of clonal shrinkage, fragmentation, fission, and fusion processes. Our results reveal contrasting life-history trade-offs among taxa which, along with differing patterns of density-dependent recruitment, modulate species responses to decline. These differences in coral life history traits reflect opposing life-strategies, imply regulation at differing life-stages, and explain divergence in species trajectories. Our findings indicate a high potential for resilience in Pocillopora and Porites populations, thanks respectively to a sustained recruitment that promotes demographic elasticity through replacement of individuals, and a steady resistance to mortality which confers persistence through lingering of individuals. Resilience in Acropora appears more arbitrary, given high susceptibility to perturbations and dependency of recruitment on presence of established local populations. We identify management actions that can complement Acropora's life history and benefit recovery of its populations following mortality events. Our regression-modelling approach to quantifying and comparing species performances in different population processes is applicable to all taxa, as illustrated even those with complex clonal life histories, and can be implemented at wide spatio-temporal and taxonomic coverage. It can promote more accurate representation of species dynamics in both descriptive and predictive modelling approaches. The semi-parametric contrast curve method we develop facilitates comparing response variables along continuous explicative metrics while accounting for multiple sources of complexity in empirical data. It should widely benefit investigations in ecology and quantitative science.
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