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Keywords:

  • biodiversity;
  • coral reefs;
  • cryptic invertebrates;
  • disturbance;
  • Great Barrier Reef;
  • storms

Abstract

Relatively little is known about how the future effects of climatic change, including increases in sea level, temperature and storm severity and frequency, will impact on patterns of biodiversity on coral reefs, with the notable exception of recent work on corals and fish in tropical reef ecosystems. Sessile invertebrates such as ascidians, sponges and bryozoans occupying intertidal rubble habitats on coral reefs contribute significantly to the overall biodiversity and ecosystem function, but there is little or no information available on the likely impacts on these species from climate change. The existing strong physical gradients in these intertidal habitats will be exacerbated under predicted climatic change. By examining the distribution and abundance of nonscleractinian, sessile invertebrate assemblages exposed to different levels of wave action and at different heights on the shore around a coral reef, we show that coral reef intertidal biodiversity is particularly sensitive to physical disturbance. As physical disturbance regimes increase due to more intense storms and wave action associated with global warming, we can expect to see a corresponding decrease in the diversity of these cryptic sessile assemblages. This could impact negatively on the future health and productivity of coral reef ecosystems, given the ecosystem services these organisms provide.