Space partitioning by stony corals soft corals and benthic algae on the coral reefs of the northern Gulf of Eilat (Red Sea)

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Abstract

The major faunistic and floristic components occupying space on the coral reefs of the northern Gulf of Eilat (Red Sea) are stony corals, soft corals and benthic algae. The percent living coverage of the three components and the relative abundance of the different species of each component were studied by line transects, on the reef flats and the upper forereef zones of nine localities. A wider and higher range of living coverage values of stony corals were recorded at the upper fore-reef zones (18.30–49.09%) compared with the reef flats (5.50–31.66%) at the different stations. The most abundant stony corals on the reef flats areCyphastrea microphthalma, Stylophora pistillata, Favia favus, Porites lutea, Platygyra lamellina and the hydrozoanMillepora dichotoma. The fire coralM. dichotoma dominates the upper fore-reef zone in most of the stations. The average percent living coverage of soft corals on the reef flats ranged between 0.20 and 17.06%, and on the upper fore-reef zones between 1.68 and 15.13%. Seventy percent of the total living coverage of the soft coral community is contributed by 2 to 3 species. They tend to form large monospecific “carpets”, such as those composed ofSinularia sp.,Sarcophyton glaucum andLobophytum pauciflorum. The common benthic algae on the coral reef studied occur as turfs or macroscopic noncalcareous algae. They play a significant role in occupying space, especially on the reef flats. The most abundant algae recorded in all localities are the turfsSphacelaria tribuloides, Jania sp. and the macroscopic non-calcareous algaeTurbinaria elatensis andColpomenia sinuosa. Comparison between reef flats and upper fore-reef zones, in terms of average living cover of stony corals, shows that the variation among the reef flats is grater than the variation among the upper fore-reef zones. However, there is no significant variation in the average living coverage of soft corals between these two zones. Annual living-coverage values of algae on the reef flats are significantly higher than those of the upper fore-reef zones. Extremely low tides occurring periodically but unpredictably at Eilat cause mass mortality of the benthic communities on the reef flats reopening new spaces for settlement. The coexistence of stony corals, soft corals and algae on the reef ecosystem is due to different biological properties of each component. Opportunistic life histories of certain stony corals and most algae enable quick colonization of newly opened spaces. Lack of predators, high tolerance against abiotic factors and ability to form large aggregates of colonies are suggested as possible factors supporting the existence of soft corals in shallow water. Biological factors such as competition, predation and grazing pressure play an increasingly important role in controlling space utilization by the components studied with the advancement of succession.