MEPS 586:11-20 (2018)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12410

Spatial and temporal limits of coral-macroalgal competition: the negative impacts of macroalgal density, proximity, and history of contact

Cody S. Clements1, Douglas B. Rasher2, Andrew S. Hoey3, Victor E. Bonito4, Mark E. Hay1,*

1School of Biological Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA
2Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, East Boothbay, ME 04544, USA
3ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
4Reef Explorer Fiji Ltd., Korolevu, Fiji
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Tropical reefs are commonly transitioning from coral to macroalgal dominance, producing abrupt, and often lasting, shifts in community composition and ecosystem function. Although negative effects of macroalgae on corals are well documented, whether such effects vary with spatial scale or the density of macroalgae remains inadequately understood, as does the legacy of their impact on coral growth. Using adjacent coral- versus macroalgal-dominated areas, we tested effects of macroalgal competition on 2 common Indo-Pacific coral species. When corals were transplanted to areas of: (1) macroalgal dominance, (2) macroalgal dominance but with nearby macroalgae removed, or (3) coral dominance lacking macroalgae, coral growth was equivalently high in plots without macroalgae and low (62-90% less) in plots with macroalgae, regardless of location. In a separate experiment, we exposed corals to differing densities of the dominant macroalga Sargassum polycystum. Coral survivorship was high (≥93% after 3 mo) and did not differ among treatments, whereas the growth of both coral species decreased as a function of Sargassum density. When Sargassum was removed after 3 mo, there was no legacy effect of macroalgal density on coral growth over the next 6 mo; however, there was no compensation for previously depressed growth. In sum, macroalgal impacts were density-dependent, and occurred only if macroalgae were in close contact, and coral growth was resilient to prior macroalgal contact. The temporal and spatial constraints of these interactions suggest that corals may be surprisingly resilient to periodic macroalgal competition, which could have important implications for ecosystem trajectories that lead to reef decline or recovery.


KEY WORDS: Coral reef · Macroalgae · Coral-algal competition · Fiji


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Cite this article as: Clements CS, Rasher DB, Hoey AS, Bonito VE, Hay ME (2018) Spatial and temporal limits of coral-macroalgal competition: the negative impacts of macroalgal density, proximity, and history of contact. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 586:11-20. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12410

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