The impact of ecosystem connectivity on coral reef resilience


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  • 1Ontogenetic dispersal of animals has been observed among many ecosystems, but its full ecological significance is poorly understood. By modelling the consequences of ontogenetic reef fish dispersal between Caribbean mangroves and adjacent coral reefs, we quantify the broader implications of ecosystem connectivity for ecosystem function and resilience to climate-driven disturbance.
  • 2Mangrove-driven enrichment of parrotfish grazing on two coral reef habitats was calculated using empirical data. The consequences of increased grazing were then investigated using a spatial simulation of coral reef dynamics in shallow (depth 3–6 m) and mid-shelf forereefs (depth 7–15 m).
  • 3The largest increase in grazing occurred in shallow reefs, but was found to have negligible consequences for coral population dynamics.
  • 4In contrast, relatively weak increases in grazing on deeper reefs had profound consequences: reefs near mangroves were able to experience coral recovery under the most intense hurricane regimes of the Caribbean, whereas those lacking ecosystem connectivity had little capacity for recovery.
  • 5This surprising result occurs because reefs exhibit multiple stable equilibria and mangrove enrichment of grazing in mid-shelf reefs coincides with a zone of system instability. A small increase in grazing shifted the reef beyond a bifurcation point, thereby enhancing resilience massively. A relatively large increase in grazing in shallow reefs had minimal ecosystem consequence because the grazing levels concerned were more than double the levels needed to exceed the corresponding bifurcation point for this habitat.
  • 6Synthesis and applications. Caribbean mangroves are being deforested at a faster rate than rainforests, yet their protective role against hurricane damage extends not only shoreward to coastal environments but also seaward to increasing the resilience of offshore coral reefs. Specifically, ontogenetic mechanisms of ecosystem connectivity involving parrotfish may increase the probability that coral populations will recover from climate-induced changes in hurricane disturbance. Efforts to arrest mangrove deforestation and restore mangrove habitats are likely to increase the likelihood of recovery of corals on mid-depth (7–15 m) reefs after disturbance. In general, the ecosystem-level consequences of ontogenetic migration do not correspond necessarily to the magnitude of locally observed effects (i.e. the pattern of grazer enrichment exhibited the opposite pattern to that of its consequences for system resilience). Therefore, caution must be exercised when interpreting the functional significance of changes in species abundance for ecosystem process (e.g. grazing pressure and its implications for coral growth and survival). Impacts of shifting abundance or process are perhaps best appreciated using mechanistic ecosystem models.