Coral bleaching, reef fish community phase shifts and the resilience of coral reefs

Authors

  • DAVID R. BELLWOOD,

    1. School of Marine Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia,
    2. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia,
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  • ANDREW S. HOEY,

    1. School of Marine Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia,
    2. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia,
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  • JOHN L. ACKERMAN,

    1. School of Marine Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia,
    2. Fisheries and Marine Sciences Program, Bureau of Rural Sciences, GPO Box 858, Canberra, ACT 2610, Australia
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  • MARTIAL DEPCZYNSKI

    1. School of Marine Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia,
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David Bellwood, School of Marine Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia, tel. +61 (0)7 47814447, fax +61 (0)7 47251570, e-mail: David.Bellwood@jcu.edu.au

Abstract

The 1998 global coral bleaching event was the largest recorded historical disturbance of coral reefs and resulted in extensive habitat loss. Annual censuses of reef fish community structure over a 12-year period spanning the bleaching event revealed a marked phase shift from a prebleach to postbleach assemblage. Surprisingly, we found that the bleaching event had no detectable effect on the abundance, diversity or species richness of a local cryptobenthic reef fish community. Furthermore, there is no evidence of regeneration even after 5–35 generations of these short-lived species. These results have significant implications for our understanding of the response of coral reef ecosystems to global warming and highlight the importance of selecting appropriate criteria for evaluating reef resilience.

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