, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 75-90

Simulation of the effects of Acanthaster planci on the population structure of massive corals in the genus Porites: evidence of population resilience?

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Abstract

Scleractinian corals in the genus Porites are slow growing, can live for centuries, and can attain great size. In these respects they differ from the majority of coral species, which grow faster and live for years to decades. The predatory starfish Acanthaster planci L. feeds on a wide range of coral species including Porites spp., and during outbreaks in its populations, causes high coral mortality and injury over much of the affected reefs. Because they are slow growing and because recent outbreaks of the starfish occurred only 15 years apart, it may be argued that the Porites populations on affected reefs will be sent into a period of prolonged decline. The present study uses a size stage model of the transition matrix type to predict effects of starfish outbreaks of various frequencies on Porites populations. A transition matrix characterizing the mortality and injury caused in different Porites size classes at John Brewer Reef during an “outbreak” year was determined from field data. Transition matrices for “non-outbreak” years were constructed on the basis of realistic growth rates and postulated survivorship and recruitment schedules. The medium term (∼100 years) effects of outbreaks were simulated by alternation of a single iteration of the outbreak matrix with many iterations of each non-outbreak matrix. By varying the interval between simulated outbreaks it was possible to define combinations of growth rate, survivorship and recruitment which were viable for various outbreak intervals. Simulations based on estimates of the initial size frequency distribution, recruitment rates and colony growth rates for the John Brewer Reef population predicted that the population would remain viable in the face of outbreaks every 15 years only if juvenile and adult survivorship were high. However, within the range of colony growth rates known to occur throughout the Great Barrier Reef and at recruitment rates of the same order as those estimated in the field population, it appears that a much wider range of survivorship schedules could lead to parity or even sustained growth in the face of outbreaks recurring at intervals of from 1 to 3 decades. It is suggested that because the key measurable parameters (initial size structure, damage characteristics, recruitment rate and growth rate) are likely to be very patchy at the scale of whole reefs, no general statement concerning the prognosis for Porites would be meaningful. However the model provides a tool by which a standardized evaluation of this type of field data may be made on a reef by reef basis.