, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 697-705

Recruitment failure in Florida Keys Acropora palmata, a threatened Caribbean coral

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Abstract

Recovery of Acropora palmata from its currently imperiled status depends on recruitment, a process which is poorly documented in existing Caribbean coral population studies. A. palmata is thought to be well adapted to proliferate through the recruitment of fragments resulting from physical disturbances, such as moderate intensity hurricanes. This study monitored fifteen 150 m2 fixed study plots on the upper Florida Keys fore-reef for asexual and sexual recruitment from 2004 to 2007. Between July and October 2005, 4 hurricanes passed by the Florida Keys, producing wind speeds on the reef tract of 23 to 33 m s−1. Surveys following the hurricanes documented an average loss of 52% estimated live tissue area within the study plots. The percentage of “branching” colonies in the population decreased from 67% to 42% while “remnant” colonies (isolated patches of tissue on standing skeleton) increased from 11% to 27%. Although some detached branches remained as loose fragments, more than 70% of the 380 fragments observed in the study plots were dead or rapidly losing tissue 3 weeks after Hurricane Dennis. Over the course of the study, only 27 fragments became attached to the substrate to form successful asexual recruits. Meanwhile, of the 18 new, small encrusting colonies that were observed in the study, only 2 were not attributable to asexual origin (i.e., remnant tissue from colonies or fragments previously observed) and are therefore possible sexual recruits. In summary, the 2005 hurricane season resulted in substantial loss of A. palmata from the upper Florida Keys fore-reef from a combination of physical removal and subsequent disease-like tissue mortality, and yielded few recruits of either sexual or asexual origin. Furthermore, the asexual and sexual fecundity of the remaining population is compromised for the near future due to the lack of branches (i.e., “asexual fecundity”) and overall loss of live tissue.

Communicated by Ecology Editor Prof. Peter Mumby.