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Life histories predict coral community disassembly under multiple stressors


Correspondence: Emily S. Darling, tel. + 778-782-3989, fax + 778-782-3496, e-mail:


Climate change is reshaping biological communities against a background of existing human pressure. Evaluating the impacts of multiple stressors on community dynamics can be particularly challenging in species-rich ecosystems, such as coral reefs. Here, we investigate whether life-history strategies and cotolerance to different stressors can predict community responses to fishing and temperature-driven bleaching using a 20-year time series of coral assemblages in Kenya. We found that the initial life-history composition of coral taxa largely determined the impacts of bleaching and coral loss. Prior to the 1998 bleaching event, coral assemblages within no-take marine reserves were composed of three distinct life histories – competitive, stress-tolerant and weedy– and exhibited strong declines following bleaching with limited subsequent recovery. In contrast, fished reefs had lower coral cover, fewer genera and were composed of stress-tolerant and weedy corals that were less affected by bleaching over the long term. Despite these general patterns, we found limited evidence for cotolerance as coral genera and life histories were variable in their sensitivities to fishing and bleaching. Overall, fishing and bleaching have reduced coral diversity and led to altered coral communities of ‘survivor’ species with stress-tolerant and weedy life histories. Our findings are consistent with expectations that climate change interacting with existing human pressure will result in the loss of coral diversity and critical reef habitat.

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