, Volume 151, Issue 5, pp 1623-1631
Date: 06 Mar 2007

Coral mortality following extreme low tides and high solar radiation

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Abstract

Extreme tidal events are one of the most predictable natural disturbances in marine benthic habitats and are important determinants of zonation patterns in intertidal benthic communities. On coral reefs, spring low tides are recurrent disturbances, but are rarely reported to cause mass mortality. However, in years when extremely low tides coincide with high noon irradiances, they have the potential to cause widespread damage. Here, we report on such an event on a fringing coral reef in the central Great Barrier Reef (Australia) in September 2005. Visual surveys of colony mortality and bleaching status of more than 13,000 corals at 14 reef sites indicated that most coral taxa at wave-protected sites were severely affected by the event. Between 40 and 75% of colonies in the major coral taxa (Acropora, Porites, Faviidae, Mussidae and Pocilloporidae) were either bleached or suffered partial mortality. In contrast, corals at wave-exposed sites were largely unaffected (<1% of the corals were bleached), as periodic washing by waves prevented desiccation. Surveys along a 1–9 m depth gradient indicated that high coral mortality was confined to the tidal zone. However, 20–30% of faviid colonies were bleached throughout the depth range, suggesting that the increase in benthic irradiances during extreme low tides caused light stress in deeper water. Analyses of an 8-year dataset of tidal records for the area indicated that the combination of extended periods of aerial exposure and high irradiances occurs during May–September in most years, but that the event in September 2005 was the most severe. We argue that extreme low-tide, high-irradiance events are important structuring forces of intertidal coral reef communities, and can be as damaging as thermal stress events. Importantly, they occur at a time of year when risks from thermal stress, cyclones and monsoon-associated river run-off are minimal.

Communicated by G.F. Humphrey, Sydney.