MEPS 233:105-116 (2002)  -  doi:10.3354/meps233105

How are coral populations structured by light? Marine light regimes and the distribution of Madracis

M. J. A. Vermeij1,2,3, R. P. M. Bak1,2,*

1Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, PO Box 94766, 1090 GT Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), PO Box 59, 1790 AB Den Burg, Texel, The Netherlands
3Caribbean Institute for Research and Management of Biodiversity, Piscaderabaai, z/n, PO Box 2090, Willemstad, Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles
*Corresponding author. E-mail:

ABSTRACT: We studied the relation of light with coral colony morphology and coral distribution over a 5 to 50 m reef slope. We describe the characteristics of 6 species of the genus Madracis in relation to the light (photosynthetically active radiation [PAR]: 400 to 700 nm) colonies receive at a small spatial scale (1 to 10 cm). Species differ in their response to light but we could distinguish 3 strategies: (1) Species strive for maximum light capture and colonies occur above a threshold light value. This limits the distribution of such species toward greater depths. These species are found in shallow (<15 m) water and their morphological variation is not related to variation in the amount of light they receive. (2) Species strive for maximum light capture but all colonies occur below a threshold light value. Such species occur only on the deeper parts (>30 m) of the reef slope. Colony morphological variation is also unrelated to variation in the amount of light the colonies receive. (3) Species prefer low light habitats. Such species are found over the entire reef slope and they show a bimodal light preference. One part of the population (1st mode) prefers the maximum amount of light available at a particular depth. The other part of the population (2nd mode) prefers cryptic habitats with low light levels (5 to 60 µmol photons m-2 s-1). In these species, morphological variation in colony shape relates to light availability. Structural complexity of the reef surface within the same depth causes such variation in local light availability. This variation ranges between the maximum value at a depth predicted by physical laws and the minimal values encountered in cryptic habitats. The large variation in available light occurring over spatial scales as small as 10 cm distorts the direct relation between depth and light. Depth and light are only correlated as ecological factors for species that strive for maximum light capture (Strategy 1 or 2). A large depth distribution does not imply adaptation to a large light range when species have a strict preference for cryptic light environments. For such species (Strategy 3) depth is not a proxy for light. The different light strategies of species are related to morphological variation and species exploration of the reef habitat.

KEY WORDS: Marine light regimes · Coral populations · Madracis · Distribution · Life-history strategy

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