Detecting changes in coral reef environments in response to subtle disturbances: from organism to holobiont community responses

Ortiz, Juan (2010). Detecting changes in coral reef environments in response to subtle disturbances: from organism to holobiont community responses PhD Thesis, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland.

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Author Ortiz, Juan
Thesis Title Detecting changes in coral reef environments in response to subtle disturbances: from organism to holobiont community responses
School, Centre or Institute School of Biological Sciences
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2010-03
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
Prof. Stuart Phinn
Dr Dustin Marshall
Total pages 103
Total colour pages 3
Total black and white pages 100
Subjects 06 Biological Sciences
Abstract/Summary Coral reef environments have been degrading steadily over the last few decades. It is generally accepted now that coral reefs are one of the first marine ecosystems to show measurable perturbations driven by global warming. Some of theses perturbations are consequence of extreme stochastic disturbances like hurricanes or extreme thermal anomalies and therefore, can be easily identified using broad indicators like coral cover. These indicators are easy to measure and provide a general description of the system in question. The detection and interpretation of more subtle perturbation in coral communities is more complicated, both logistically and conceptually. However, detecting chronic perturbations at an early stage can increase significantly the success of early mitigating management strategies. This thesis focuses on the development and application of highly sensitive indicators that can detect subtle perturbations in coral communities. It also studies the ecological interpretation of mild perturbations and their effect on the future structure of coral reef environments. The mild thermal disturbance experienced by the Heron Island reef in the south of the Great Barrier Reef during the 2005-2006 summer, and an environmental gradient along the central coast of Venezuela (south Caribbean Sea), were used as models to test the sensitivity of coral reefs to mild disturbances at different organisation levels (organism, population, and community). At the organismal level my results showed that the intensity of bleaching that a colony shows during a mild thermal disturbance is affected by the morphology of the colony as well as the substrates surrounding the colony. Colonies surrounded by sand bleached more than colonies surrounded by dead coral or rubble. I propose that reef specific information on the relative cover of sand, rubble, and dead coral can improve the fine scale accuracy of bleaching predicting models. Studying the same mild thermal disturbance at Heron Island, I showed how demographic parameters of some populations are more sensitive to mild thermal disturbances than coral cover (the most widely used response variable in coral monitoring programs around the world). Furthermore, my results suggest that the response of coral populations to mild thermal disturbance is different in nature and intensity to the respond observed during extreme thermal disturbances. Some taxa like Stylophora pistillata, are highly sensitive to extreme thermal disturbances, and tend to be the first to die under these conditions. In contrast, this taxon was extremely tolerant to the mild thermal disturbance of early 2006 in comparison to other taxa identified previously as more tolerant than S. pistillata. This difference in the response of coral environments to milder more common disturbances can have great influence in the trajectory that coral reefs follow in a rapidly changing world. Finally at a community level, I demonstrated how the power to detect the effect of environmental conditions on coral environments is drastically increased when the coral host-endosymbiotic algae relationship is interpreted holistically. The percentage of the variability of the community structure that can be explained by environmental variables in the central coast of Venezuela is doubled when the unit of selection considered is the holobiont instead of the coral host or the endosymbiont independently. This approach can be crucial for the detection of subtle changes in coral communities as the frequency and intensity of disturbances increase rapidly. The increase in detection power provided by the different approaches developed in this project can both improve our understanding of the structuring role of mild disturbances in coral communities as well as help identify the effect of disturbances in an early stage before the perturbation reaches catastrophic proportions. This early identification of perturbations can be used for the development of adaptive management strategies that can increase the resistance and resilience of coral reefs in the future.
Keyword Coral reefs
Additional Notes 6, 29, 64

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Created: Fri, 13 Aug 2010, 13:08:28 EST by Mr Juan Ortiz on behalf of Library - Information Access Service