Coral Reefs

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 309–327 | Cite as

Assessing the ‘deep reef refugia’ hypothesis: focus on Caribbean reefs

  • P. Bongaerts
  • T. Ridgway
  • E. M. Sampayo
  • O. Hoegh-Guldberg


Coral reefs in shallow-water environments (<30 m) are in decline due to local and global anthropogenic stresses. This has led to renewed interest in the ‘deep reef refugia’ hypothesis (DRRH), which stipulates that deep reef areas (1) are protected or dampened from disturbances that affect shallow reef areas and (2) can provide a viable reproductive source for shallow reef areas following disturbance. Using the Caribbean as an example, the assumptions of this hypothesis were explored by reviewing the literature for scleractinian corals—the reef framework builders on tropical reefs. Although there is evidence to support that deep reefs (>30 m) can escape the direct effects of storm-induced waves and thermal bleaching events, deep reefs are certainly not immune to disturbance. Additionally, the potential of deep reefs to provide propagules for shallow reef areas seems limited to ‘depth-generalist’ coral species, which constitute only ~25% of the total coral biodiversity. Larval connectivity between shallow and deep populations of these species may be further limited due to specific life history traits (e.g., brooding reproductive strategy and vertical symbiont acquisition mode). This review exposes how little is known about deep reefs and coral reproduction over depth. Hence, a series of urgent research priorities are proposed to determine the extent to which deep reefs may act as a refuge in the face of global reef decline.


Deep coral reef Refugia Mesophotic Global climate change Disturbance 



The authors would like to thank Mark Vermeij, Tyler Smith, Thomas Bridge, Kyra Hay, Cynthia Riginos, Petra Visser, and five anonymous reviewers for valuable comments that significantly improved the manuscript. The authors of this study were supported by the Coral Reef Targeted Research Project ( and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies. This is a contribution from the Coral Reef Ecosystems Laboratory at The University of Queensland (


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. Bongaerts
    • 1
    • 2
  • T. Ridgway
    • 1
    • 3
  • E. M. Sampayo
    • 1
    • 4
  • O. Hoegh-Guldberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for Marine Studies, and ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesThe University of QueenslandSt LuciaAustralia
  2. 2.CARMABI Research InstituteWillemstadCuraçao
  3. 3.Climate Change GroupGreat Barrier Reef Marine park AuthorityTownsvilleAustralia
  4. 4.Department of BiologyPennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

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