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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 630:55-68 (2019)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13128

Coral reef assessments based on cover alone mask active dynamics of coral communities

Marlene Brito-Millán1,2,*, Mark J. A. Vermeij3,4, Esmeralda A. Alcantar2, Stuart A. Sandin2

1Cuerpo Académico Biodiversidad y Gestión Ambiental Sustentable, Facultad de Ciencias Químico Biológicas, Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero, Av. Lázaro Cárdenas s/n, Ciudad Universitaria Sur, 39090, Chilpancingo de los Bravo, Guerrero, México
2Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California-San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0202, USA
3CARMABI Foundation, Piscaderabaai z/n, PO Box 2090, Willemstad, Curaçao
4Department of Aquatic Microbiology, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, PO Box 94248, 1090 GE Amsterdam, The Netherlands
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Coral reef communities are often studied by tracking the percentage (or fraction) of the reef covered by coral through time. However, coral community dynamics result, in part, from underlying colony-level growth and mortality, which in turn depend on characteristics of individual colonies, such as size, taxon, life history strategy, and morphology. Colonies are also subject to external disturbances that propel fission into smaller coral fragments and fusion where related fragments later fuse into contiguous colonies. To quantify how changes in coral growth through time depend on individual colony characteristics and colony fission and fusion processes, 4385 individual Caribbean coral colonies representing 4 dominant coral types (Madracis mirabilis, mounding coral species, Agaricia agaricites, and Millepora spp.) were tracked at 6 mo intervals for 4 yr. Despite overall stable percent coral cover, colonies belonging to different coral types experienced differential growth, shrinkage, mortality, fission, and fusion processes. All coral types displayed size-dependent allometric growth patterns whereby relative, or proportional, growth in colony area decreased with increasing colony size. The largest changes in relative colony growth resulted from colony fission or fusion with other colonies, which occurred in 16.4% of all monitored colonies. Colony longevity, or survival, increased significantly with increasing colony size for all hard-coral groups that did not experience fission, fusion, or a combination of these processes. Our findings illustrate the usefulness of a size- and life-history-dependent approach to coral demography that elucidates the factors driving community dynamics of colonial organisms, which are not captured by traditional approaches based on benthic cover alone.


KEY WORDS: Coral demography · Size dependence · Fission-fusion · Community dynamics · Life history strategy · Morphology


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Cite this article as: Brito-Millán M, Vermeij MJA, Alcantar EA, Sandin SA (2019) Coral reef assessments based on cover alone mask active dynamics of coral communities. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 630:55-68. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13128

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