Letter | Published:

Predicting climate-driven regime shifts versus rebound potential in coral reefs

Nature volume 518, pages 9497 (05 February 2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Climate-induced coral bleaching is among the greatest current threats to coral reefs, causing widespread loss of live coral cover1. Conditions under which reefs bounce back from bleaching events or shift from coral to algal dominance are unknown, making it difficult to predict and plan for differing reef responses under climate change2. Here we document and predict long-term reef responses to a major climate-induced coral bleaching event that caused unprecedented region-wide mortality of Indo-Pacific corals. Following loss of >90% live coral cover, 12 of 21 reefs recovered towards pre-disturbance live coral states, while nine reefs underwent regime shifts to fleshy macroalgae. Functional diversity of associated reef fish communities shifted substantially following bleaching, returning towards pre-disturbance structure on recovering reefs, while becoming progressively altered on regime shifting reefs. We identified threshold values for a range of factors that accurately predicted ecosystem response to the bleaching event. Recovery was favoured when reefs were structurally complex and in deeper water, when density of juvenile corals and herbivorous fishes was relatively high and when nutrient loads were low. Whether reefs were inside no-take marine reserves had no bearing on ecosystem trajectory. Although conditions governing regime shift or recovery dynamics were diverse, pre-disturbance quantification of simple factors such as structural complexity and water depth accurately predicted ecosystem trajectories. These findings foreshadow the likely divergent but predictable outcomes for reef ecosystems in response to climate change, thus guiding improved management and adaptation.

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Acknowledgements

This research was principally supported by the Australian Research Council (DP1094932, DE130101705), the Leverhulme Trust (F/00 125/M), and the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association. The Natural Environment Research Council (GR3/1154) funded work in Fiji. We thank the Seychelles Fishing Authority, Seychelles Marine Parks Authority, Nature Seychelles, and Seychelles National Meteorological Services for technical and logistical assistance. Many thanks to N. Polunin for support early in the project, to N. Cariglia for collecting the sea urchin data, to K. Chong-Seng for collecting the juvenile coral data, to C. Huchery for helping develop the wave exposure model, to J. Turner for photos a and b in Extended Data Fig. 1, and T. McClanahan and N. Dulvy for sharing data used in Extended Data Table 3 and Extended Data Fig. 5. J. Cinner, C. Hicks, K. Nash, and three anonymous referees provided useful comments on the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811 Australia

    • Nicholas A. J. Graham
    • , M. Aaron MacNeil
    •  & David Mouillot
  2. Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Pakefield Road, Lowestoft NR33 OHT, UK

    • Simon Jennings
  3. School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Simon Jennings
  4. Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB 3 Townsville MC, Townsville, Queensland 4810, Australia

    • M. Aaron MacNeil
  5. ECOSYM, UMR CNRS-UM2 5119, Université Montpellier 2, 34095 Montpellier Cedex, France

    • David Mouillot
  6. Department of Parks and Wildlife, Kensington, Perth, Western Australia 6151, Australia

    • Shaun K. Wilson
  7. School of Plant Biology, Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia

    • Shaun K. Wilson

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Contributions

N.A.J.G. conceived of the study with S.K.W. and M.A.M.; N.A.J.G. S.J., and S.K.W. collected the data; N.A.J.G., M.A.M., and D.M. developed and implemented the analyses; N.A.J.G. led the manuscript with S.J., M.A.M., D.M., and S.K.W.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nicholas A. J. Graham.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14140

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