White-band disease and the changing face of Caribbean coral reefs
In recent decades, the cover of fleshy macroalgae has increased and coral cover has decreased on most Caribbean reefs. Coral mortality precipitated this transition, and the accumulation of macroalgal biomass has been enhanced by decreased herbivory and increased nutrient input. Populations of Acropora palmata (elkhorn coral) and A. cervicornis (staghorn coral), two of the most important framework-building species, have died throughout the Caribbean, substantially reducing coral cover and providing substratum for algal growth. Hurricanes have devastated local populations of Acropora spp. over the past 20–25 years, but white-band disease, a putative bacterial syndrome specific to the genus Acropora, has been a more significant source of mortality over large areas of the Caribbean region.
Paleontological data suggest that the regional Acropora kill is without precedent in the late Holocene. In Belize, A. cervicornis was the primary ecological and geological constituent of reefs in the central shelf lagoon until the mid-1980s. After constructing reef framework for thousands of years, A. cervicornis was virtually eliminated from the area over a ten-year period. Evidence from other parts of the Caribbean supports the hypothesis of continuous Holocene accumulation and recent mass mortality of Acropora spp. Prospects are poor for the rapid recovery of A. cervicornis, because its reproductive strategy emphasizes asexual fragmentation at the expense of dispersive sexual reproduction. A. palmata also relies on fragmentation, but this species has a higher rate of sexual recruitment than A. cervicornis. If the Acropora spp. do not recover, macroalgae will continue to dominate Caribbean reefs, accompanied by increased abundances of brooding corals, particularly Agaricia spp. and Porites spp. The outbreak of white-band disease has been coincident with increased human activity, and the possibility of a causal connection should be further investigated.