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Differential vulnerability to climate change yields novel deep-reef communities


The effects of climate-driven ocean change on reef habitat-forming species are diverse1,2 and can be deleterious to the structure and functioning of seafloor communities3,4,5. Although responses of shallow coral- or seaweed-based reef communities to environmental changes are a focus of ecological research in the coastal zone1,4,5,6, the ecology of habitat-forming organisms on deeper mesophotic reefs remains poorly known. These reefs are typically highly biodiverse7,8 and productive as a result of massive nutrient recycling9. Based on seafloor imagery obtained from an autonomous underwater vehicle8, we related change in community composition on deep reefs (30–90 m) across a latitudinal gradient (25–45° S) in southeastern Australia to high-resolution environmental and oceanographic data, and predicted future changes using downscaled climate change projections for the 2060s10,11,12. This region is recognized as a global hotspot for ocean warming13. The models show an overall tropicalization trend in these deep temperate reef communities, but different functional groups associate differentially to environmental drivers and display a diversity of responses to projected ocean change. We predict the emergence of novel deep-reef assemblages by the 2060s that have no counterpart on reefs today, which is likely to underpin shifts in biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

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Fig. 1: Study region.
Fig. 2: Contribution of environmental predictors to Random Forest predictions for each functional group.
Fig. 3: Random Forest predictions of functional groups’ distributions.
Fig. 4: Predicted community structures at each monitoring site.

Data availability

The ecological dataset derived from AUV imagery is extensively described7. All environmental datasets are available from public sources as referenced. Estimates of ecological and environmental variables associated with each transect, and which were used to fit the random forest models, are provided as online supplementary material. All the data that support the findings of this study, including R scripts, are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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M.P.M. and E.C.J.O. were supported by fellowships on an Australian Research Council Super Science project (FS110200029) granted to C.R.J., N.S.B. and N.J.H. We acknowledge IMOS for funding the AUV monitoring programme, and IMAS, DPI NSW, and the National Environmental Research Program Marine Biodiversity Hub, a collaborative partnership supported through the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme, for facilitating many of the deployments. We thank S. Williams, A. Friedman and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (University of Sydney) for their support in terms of accessing and scoring the AUV imagery. We are grateful to R. Matear and M. Chamberlain of CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research (Hobart, Australia) for helpful discussions and access to the OFAM model simulations (providing ocean projections for the 2060s), supported by the Western Australian Marine Science Institution Node 2 ‘Climate processes, predictability and impacts in a warming Indian Ocean’ led by M. Feng.

Author information




All authors provided comments on the paper. M.P.M. led the research, performed the analyses and wrote the paper. E.C.J.O. performed the statistical downscaling of the climate projections for the 2060s. L.J. analysed the seafloor imagery and consolidated the ecological dataset. S.J.W. provided guidance about statistical modelling techniques. C.R.J., N.S.B. and N.J.H. conceived the project and provided guidance in the conduct of the research.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin Pierre Marzloff.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes/Discussions 1–5, Supplementary Figures 1–19, Supplementary Tables 1–14, Supplementary References

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Supplementary Data 1

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Marzloff, M.P., Oliver, E.C.J., Barrett, N.S. et al. Differential vulnerability to climate change yields novel deep-reef communities. Nature Clim Change 8, 873–878 (2018).

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