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Ecological consequences of major hydrodynamic disturbances on coral reefs


A recent tsunami1,2 and an apparent increase in the frequency of severe tropical storms3,4,5 underscore the need to understand and predict the ecological consequences of major hydrodynamic disturbances6. Reef corals provide the habitat structure that sustains the high biodiversity of tropical reefs7, and thus provide the foundation for the ecosystem goods and services that are critical to many tropical societies6,8. Here we integrate predictions from oceanographic models9 with engineering theory, to predict the dislodgement of benthic reef corals during hydrodynamic disturbances. This generalizes earlier work10,11, by incorporating colonies of any shape and by explicitly examining the effects of hydrodynamic gradients on coral assemblage structure. A field test shows that this model accurately predicts changes in the mechanical vulnerability of coral colonies, and thus their size and shape, with distance from the reef crest. This work provides a general framework for understanding and predicting the effects of hydrodynamic disturbances on coral reef communities; such disturbances have a major role in determining species zonation12,13 and coexistence14 on coral reefs, and are critical determinants of how coral assemblages will respond to changes in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms associated with a changing climate3,4,5,15.

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Figure 1: Colony CSF as a function of colony distance from the reef crest.
Figure 2: Colony CSF as a function of colony size for three morphologically different coral reef species.
Figure 3: Annual probabilities of colony dislodgement predicted from the 37-yr history of water velocity on the study reef.

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We thank P. Ridd, C. Berndt and especially T. Hughes for helpful discussions; and A. Baird, M. Berumen A. Dell, M. Dornelas, C. Dudgeon, E. Madin, M. Pratchett and the staff of the Lizard Island Research Station for help in the field. This work was supported by James Cook University and the Australian Research Council.

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Correspondence to Joshua S. Madin.

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Supplementary Notes

This file contains four sections: 1) Model assumptions, 2) Increase in CSF due to colony growth, 3) Estimation of colony dislodgement rates, and 4) Supplementary references. Section 3 refers to a Supplementary Figure. (DOC 157 kb)

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Madin, J., Connolly, S. Ecological consequences of major hydrodynamic disturbances on coral reefs. Nature 444, 477–480 (2006).

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