Macroalgal canopies provide corals limited protection from bleaching and impede post-bleaching recovery

Smith, Hillary A., Prenzlau, Tara, Whitman, Taylor, Fulton, Stella E., Borghi, Stefano, Logan, Murray, Heron, Scott F., and Bourne, David G. (2022) Macroalgal canopies provide corals limited protection from bleaching and impede post-bleaching recovery. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 553. 151762.

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Coral bleaching, the result of loss of endosymbiotic dinoflagellates, as well as post-bleaching recovery can be exacerbated or mitigated by a range of local factors such as depth, turbidity, and natural or artificial shading providing protection for corals during thermal anomalies. On many reefs, losses in coral cover coincide with increases in upright macroalgae growth. Such shifts in benthic communities are generally viewed as negative, whereby macroalgae can outcompete corals for space, and affect adult coral health and fitness. However, the canopy provided by upright macroalgae could reduce solar irradiance and provide refuge for understorey corals during heat events, decreasing coral bleaching and subsequent mortality. To test this hypothesis, this study manually removed macroalgae from experimental plots on a macroalgae-dominated fringing reef at Magnetic Island in the central inshore region of the Great Barrier Reef, comparing the subsequent bleaching during and recovery following a severe heat stress event. In March 2020, sea surface temperature at Magnetic Island reached 31.4 °C, leading to bleaching. Surveys of coral communities undertaken at the peak of accumulated severe heat stress (DHW of 9.3 °C-weeks) in control and macroalgae removal plots showed that, averaged across coral morphological groups, there was no overall difference in bleaching prevalence in algal-removal and control plots (21.1% and 20.8% of the community bleached; respectively). However, bleaching prevalence varied within morphological groups, with massive morphology corals demonstrating higher probability of bleaching in removal plots compared to controls (0.26 and 0.09, respectively). Bleaching severity (i.e. percent of the colony tissue bleached) was consistent across control and removal plots (83.2% and 80.4% of colony area, respectively, averaged across morphologies), with branching corals demonstrating the lowest severity. Surveys were repeated in July after heat stress had dissipated, with coral communities in algal-removal plots displaying greater recovery than controls (i.e. 86.1% and 75.6% healthy, respectively, model estimated mean averaged across morphologies). Encrusting corals in control plots were the slowest to recover. We conclude that macroalgae provided limited refuge for branching and encrusting corals at the height of the thermal event, likely due to the severity of the accumulated heat stress, while massive corals enjoyed some degree of protection from the canopy. Greater recovery of coral communities in removal plots may potentially be explained by reduced competition with adjacent macroalgae. This study provides important insights into the interactions between these two dominant benthic groups and supports previous work finding macroalgae inhibits coral recovery after severe bleaching events.

Item ID: 76467
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 0022-0981
Keywords: Canopy effects, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Macroalgae removal, Shading, Thermal refugia
Copyright Information: © 2022 Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Date Deposited: 19 Apr 2023 01:23
FoR Codes: 41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4102 Ecological applications > 410203 Ecosystem function @ 100%
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