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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 717:37-50 (2023)  -  DOI:

Drivers of coral mortality in non-acute disturbance periods

Hillary A. Smith1,2,#, Carla C. M. Chen1,#, F. Joseph Pollock3,4, Morgan Re5, Bette L. Willis1, David G. Bourne1,6,7,*

1College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
2Centre for Marine Science and Innovation, School of Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia
3Department of Biology, Pennsylvania State University, 208 Mueller Lab, University Park, PA 16802, USA
4The Nature Conservancy, Hawai’i and Palmyra Programs, 923 Nu‘uanu Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96817, USA
5SeaWorld San Diego, San Diego, CA 92109, USA
6Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB3, Townsville, QLD 4810, Australia
7AIMS@JCU, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
*Corresponding author:
#These authors contributed equally to this work

ABSTRACT: Studies focused on understanding drivers of coral mortality often examine reef- or ecosystem-scale stressors and/or pulse events such as mass bleaching or disease outbreaks. While such work provides valuable information about large-scale changes to reef ecosystems, how stressors interact at the individual colony level across non-disturbance years is less understood. In this study, we tracked the fate of 400 plating Acropora coral colonies from 2 mid- and 2 outer-shelf reefs for 18 mo and examined (1) temporal changes in the prevalence of stressors, (2) how stressors affected the survival of individual colonies, and (3) survival rates of colonies after contracting disease. We found that 35.5% of all colonies died within the 18 mo observation period, a period free from acute disturbances (e.g. cyclones, mass bleaching, crown-of-thorns starfish [CoTS] outbreaks). Despite its low prevalence, predation (by Drupella spp. or CoTS) led to the greatest risk of complete mortality compared to corals that experienced no stressors (over 10-fold increased risk). Similarly, experiencing disease and physical injury (fragmentation, dislodgement) also increased the risk of complete mortality (~4-fold and ~2-fold, respectively). In contrast, while compromised health (i.e. bleaching, algal overgrowth) was common, this did not significantly increase the risk of colony mortality. Survival analysis of colonies with white syndrome showed that colonies exposed to stressors prior to contracting disease were 3 times more likely to die compared to colonies with disease alone. Our results highlight the complex interactions that occur among multiple stressors on coral reefs, even in non-disturbance years, and quantify the increased risk of mortality for colonies experiencing accumulated stressors.

KEY WORDS: Coral mortality · Coral demographics · Survival analysis · Coral disease · White syndrome · Crown-of-thorns starfish · Coral bleaching · Coral predation

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Cite this article as: Smith HA, Chen CCM, Pollock FJ, Re M, Willis BL, Bourne DG (2023) Drivers of coral mortality in non-acute disturbance periods. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 717:37-50.

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