Marine Biology

, 165:29 | Cite as

Variability of size structure and species composition in Caribbean octocoral communities under contrasting environmental conditions

  • Georgios Tsounis
  • Peter J. Edmunds
  • Lorenzo Bramanti
  • Bonnie Gambrel
  • Howard R. Lasker
Original paper


Octocorals have increased in abundance on a number of Caribbean reefs, but this trend has largely been reported with functional group or genus resolution. A species-level analysis of octocoral communities in St. John, US Virgin Islands was conducted to better understand how this taxon will respond to changing conditions based on their synecology at two sites that are 1.5 km apart and differ in physical conditions. East Cabritte is characterized by moderate wave energy, low sedimentation, and clear water, while contrasting conditions characterize Europa Bay. Surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015 showed that the abundance and size of adult octocorals differed between sites, with taller and denser communities at East Cabritte than Europa Bay (mean height of 32 versus 20 cm; 18 versus 8 colonies m−2). Octocoral diversity and evenness were similar between sites, although multivariate octocoral community structure differed between sites regardless of whether octocorals were resolved to genera or species. Genus-resolution masked differences between sites for speciose genera like Eunicea. The broad overlap in species representation at both sites suggests that diversity is less responsive than community structure to differing environmental conditions, perhaps because the ecological niches of these species are broad. With 35 octocoral species, and diversity and abundances comparable to those studied > 40 years ago on shallow Caribbean reefs, the dense octocoral communities appearing on some present-day reefs reflect expanded benthic occupancy by a well-known (rather than a novel) community type.



This research was completed under a permit issued by the VI National Park (VIIS-2011-SCI-0016). Special thanks to W. Goldberg for providing access to the raw data from his studies. We are grateful to E. A. Lenz, A. Ellis and J. Smolenski for analysis of photoquadrats for soft corals, R. Boulon, C. S. Rogers, S. Prosterman, and V. Powell for local support, and the staff of the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station for making our visits productive and enjoyable. This is contribution number 262 of the marine biology program of California State University, Northridge.


This study was funded by the US National Science Foundation (Grant Numbers DEB 08-41441, DEB 13-50146, OCE 13-32915).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Supplementary material

227_2018_3286_MOESM1_ESM.tif (22.7 mb)
Online Resource 1: Photograph of the octocoral community at East Cabritte (A) and Europa Bay (B) in 2016. The photograph at East Cabritte shows a view of ~ 2 m width in the foreground, at ~ 8-m depth; the photograph at Europa Bay shows a view of ~ 3 m width in the foreground, at ~ 7-m depth. (TIFF 23295 kb)
227_2018_3286_MOESM2_ESM.eps (1.8 mb)
Online Resource 2: Species accumulation plot showing mean species richness as a function of sampled area (m2). Curves were produced after Coleman et al. (1982), using the specaccum function in the vegan package of the R statistical software. Vertical bars represent mean ± SD (based on a rarefaction with 100 permutations). (EPS 1819 kb)
227_2018_3286_MOESM3_ESM.pdf (67 kb)
Supplementary material 3 (PDF 66 kb)
227_2018_3286_MOESM4_ESM.pdf (62 kb)
Supplementary material 4 (PDF 61 kb)
227_2018_3286_MOESM5_ESM.eps (526 kb)
Online Resource 5: Octocoral abundance at 15 sites around St. John and St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Bar graphs showing mean densities (± SE, n = 40) of octocorals recorded in the present study (black) and in a recent study (grey) that censused octocorals on a larger spatial scale on St. John and St. Thomas in 2011 (Edmunds et al. 2016). WL = Waterlemon Cay; H = Haulover Bay; EC = East Cabritte; WC = Whistling Cay; MB = Magens Bay; BR = Booby Rock; IB = Inner Brass Bay; BB = Botany Bay; GLB = Great Lameshur Bay; CL = Cocoloba Cay; EB = Europa Bay; FB = Fortuna Bay; CC = Cow and Calves; FC = Flat Cay. (EPS 526 kb)


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.California State University NorthridgeNorthridgeUSA
  2. 2.Laboratoire d’Ecogeochimie des Environnements Benthiques, LECOBSorbonne Universités, Université Pierre et Marie Curie-CNRSBanyuls/MerFrance
  3. 3.University at BuffaloBuffaloUSA

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