MEPS 414:91-105 (2010)  -  doi:10.3354/meps08724

Running the gauntlet: inhibitory effects of algal turfs on the processes of coral recruitment

Suzanne N. Arnold1,*, Robert S. Steneck1, Peter J. Mumby2

1Darling Marine Center, University of Maine, Walpole, Maine 04573, USA
2School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St Lucia Campus, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

ABSTRACT: Mortality of corals is increasing due to bleaching, disease and algal overgrowth. In the Caribbean, low rates of coral recruitment contribute to the slow or undetectable rates of recovery in reef ecosystems. Although algae have long been suspected to interfere with coral recruitment, the mechanisms of that interaction remain unclear. We experimentally tested the effects of turf algal abundance on 3 sequential factors important to recruitment of corals: the biophysical delivery of planktonic coral larvae, their propensity to settle, and the availability of microhabitats where they survive. We deployed coral settlement plates inside and outside damselfish Stegastes spp. gardens and cages. Damselfish aggression reduced herbivory from fishes, and cages became fouled with turf algae, both locally increasing algal biomass surrounding the plates. This reduced flushing rates in nursery microhabitats on the plate underside, limiting larvae available for settlement. Coral spat settled preferentially on an early successional crustose coralline alga Titanoderma prototypum but also on or near other coralline algae, biofilms, and calcareous polychaete worm tubes. Post-settlement survival was highest in the fully grazed, lowest algal biomass treatment, and after 27 mo ‘spat’ densities were 73% higher in this treatment. The ‘gauntlet’ refers to the sequence of ecological processes through which corals must survive to recruit. The highest proportion of coral spat successfully running the gauntlet did so under conditions of low algal biomass resulting from increased herbivory. If coral recruitment is heavily controlled at very local scales by this gauntlet, then coral reef managers could improve a reef’s recruitment potential by managing for reduced algal biomass.

KEY WORDS: Coral reef · Algal biomass · Herbivory · Parrotfish · Recruitment limitation · Caribbean · Demographic bottleneck · Bonaire

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Cite this article as: Arnold SN, Steneck RS, Mumby PJ (2010) Running the gauntlet: inhibitory effects of algal turfs on the processes of coral recruitment. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 414:91-105

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