Region-wide temporal and spatial variation in Caribbean reef architecture: is coral cover the whole story?

Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, Isabelle M. Cote, Jennifer A. Gill, Andrew R. Watkinson, Nicholas K. Dulvy

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The architectural complexity of coral reefs is largely generated by reef-building corals, yet the effects of current regional-scale declines in coral cover on reef complexity are poorly understood. In particular, both the extent to which declines in coral cover lead to declines in complexity and the length of time it takes for reefs to collapse following coral mortality are unknown. Here we assess the extent of temporal and spatial covariation between coral cover and reef architectural complexity using a Caribbean-wide dataset of temporally replicated estimates spanning four decades. Both coral cover and architectural complexity have declined rapidly over time, with little evidence of a time-lag. However, annual rates of change in coral cover and complexity do not covary, and levels of complexity vary greatly among reefs with similar coral cover. These findings suggest that the stressors influencing Caribbean reefs are sufficiently severe and widespread to produce similar regional-scale declines in coral cover and reef complexity, even though reef architectural complexity is not a direct function of coral cover at local scales. Given that architectural complexity is not a simple function of coral cover, it is important that conservation monitoring and restoration give due consideration to both architecture and coral cover. This will help ensure that the ecosystem services supported by architectural complexity, such as nutrient recycling, dissipation of wave energy, fish production and diversity, are maintained and enhanced.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2470–2477
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2011

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