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Keywords:

  • acidification;
  • climate change;
  • coral bleaching;
  • coral disease;
  • irradiance;
  • meta-analysis;
  • overfishing

Abstract

Concern is growing about the potential effects of interacting multiple stressors, especially as the global climate changes. We provide a comprehensive review of multiple stressor interactions in coral reef ecosystems, which are widely considered to be one of the most sensitive ecosystems to global change. First, we synthesized coral reef studies that examined interactions of two or more stressors, highlighting stressor interactions (where one stressor directly influences another) and potentially synergistic effects on response variables (where two stressors interact to produce an effect that is greater than purely additive). For stressor-stressor interactions, we found 176 studies that examined at least 2 of the 13 stressors of interest. Applying network analysis to analyze relationships between stressors, we found that pathogens were exacerbated by more costressors than any other stressor, with ca. 78% of studies reporting an enhancing effect by another stressor. Sedimentation, storms, and water temperature directly affected the largest number of other stressors. Pathogens, nutrients, and crown-of-thorns starfish were the most-influenced stressors. We found 187 studies that examined the effects of two or more stressors on a third dependent variable. The interaction of irradiance and temperature on corals has been the subject of more research (62 studies, 33% of the total) than any other combination of stressors, with many studies reporting a synergistic effect on coral symbiont photosynthetic performance (n = 19). Second, we performed a quantitative meta-analysis of existing literature on this most-studied interaction (irradiance and temperature). We found that the mean effect size of combined treatments was statistically indistinguishable from a purely additive interaction, although it should be noted that the sample size was relatively small (n = 26). Overall, although in aggregate a large body of literature examines stressor effects on coral reefs and coral organisms, considerable gaps remain for numerous stressor interactions and effects, and insufficient quantitative evidence exists to suggest that the prevailing type of stressor interaction is synergistic.