Convergent mortality responses of Caribbean coral species to seawater warming

Authors

  • T. B. Smith,

    Corresponding author
    1. Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands 00802 USA
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  • M. E. Brandt,

    1. Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands 00802 USA
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  • J. M. Calnan,

    1. Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands 00802 USA
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  • R. S. Nemeth,

    1. Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands 00802 USA
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  • J. Blondeau,

    1. Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands 00802 USA
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    • Present address: Southeast Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 75 Virginia Beach Drive, Miami, Florida 33149 USA.

  • E. Kadison,

    1. Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands 00802 USA
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  • M. Taylor,

    1. Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands 00802 USA
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  • P. Rothenberger

    1. East End Marine Park Office, Division of Coastal Zone Management, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, 45 Estate Mars Hill, Frederiksted, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands 00840 USA
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  • Corresponding Editor: D. P. C. Peters.

Abstract

Species-specific responses to disturbance are a central consideration for predicting the composition, dynamics, and function of future communities. These responses may be predictable based on species traits that can be analyzed systematically to understand those characteristics important in determining susceptibility and potential for recovery. Scleractinian coral communities of the Western Atlantic are experiencing increased frequency and severity of extreme thermal disturbance, coral bleaching, and mortality. A conceptual thermal bleaching response model developed in this study suggests multiple susceptibility pathways that can lead corals to partial mortality and the loss of biomass, or complete mortality and the loss of genotypes, with implications for species-specific persistence and recovery. Coral assessments from annual to semi-annual surveys at 18 sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands, northeastern Caribbean Sea, before, during, and after the catastrophic 2005 coral bleaching event and during the mild 2010 bleaching event were used to evaluate bleaching, disease, and mortality responses. Three convergent groupings of species emerged based predominantly on their responses to the 2005 event: Type I—high bleaching and initial mortality, no subsequent white disease, and severe losses of cover (exhibited by Agaricia agaricites and branching Porites species); Type II—moderate bleaching and initial mortality, high subsequent white disease prevalence, and severe losses of cover (exhibited by Colpophyllia natans, Montastraea annularis species complex, and M. annularis sensu stricto); Type III—moderate to low bleaching and paling, low to no subsequent white disease, and low to no loss of cover (exhibited by Diploria strigosa, Montastraea cavernosa, Porites astreoides, and Siderastrea siderea). Whole colony mortality was uncommon, even in the most susceptible species, suggesting a potential for recovery among the majority (19 of 27) of scleractinian corals studied. Type II species performed worse than predicted by species traits because of their susceptibility to disease, a factor that needs to be incorporated more fully in models of thermal stress response. Responses of all species to the milder 2010 event were less severe, with limited bleaching and no detectible mortality. Future community composition of Caribbean coral reefs under seawater warming will likely be increasingly dominated by resistant Type III species.

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