Coral Reefs

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 315–326 | Cite as

The importance of structural complexity in coral reef ecosystems

  • N. A. J. Graham
  • K. L. Nash


The importance of structural complexity in coral reefs has come to the fore with the global degradation of reef condition; however, the limited scale and replication of many studies have restricted our understanding of the role of complexity in the ecosystem. We qualitatively and quantitatively (where sufficient standardised data were available) assess the literature regarding the role of structural complexity in coral reef ecosystems. A rapidly increasing number of publications have studied the role of complexity in reef ecosystems over the past four decades, with a concomitant increase in the diversity of methods used to quantify structure. Quantitative analyses of existing data indicate a strong negative relationship between structural complexity and algal cover, which may reflect the important role complexity plays in enhancing herbivory by reef fishes. The cover of total live coral and branching coral was positively correlated with structural complexity. These habitat attributes may be creating much of the structure, resulting in a collinear relationship; however, there is also evidence of enhanced coral recovery from disturbances where structural complexity is high. Urchin densities were negatively correlated with structural complexity; a relationship that may be driven by urchins eroding reef structure or by their gregarious behaviour when in open space. There was a strong positive relationship between structural complexity and fish density and biomass, likely mediated through density-dependent competition and refuge from predation. More variable responses were found when assessing individual fish families, with all families examined displaying a positive relationship to structural complexity, but only half of these relationships were significant. Although only corroborated with qualitative data, structural complexity also seems to have a positive effect on two ecosystem services: tourism and shoreline protection. Clearly, structural complexity is an integral component of coral reef ecosystems, and it should be incorporated into monitoring programs and management objectives.


Coral reef ecology Coral reef fishes Ecosystem function Diversity Marine protected areas Ecological methods 



This study was funded through research fellowships from the Australian Research Council and Queensland Smart Futures Fund. An earlier draft of the manuscript was improved through the comments of Andrew Hoey.

Supplementary material

338_2012_984_MOESM1_ESM.doc (160 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 160 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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