Coral recruitment and juvenile mortality as structuring factors for reef benthic communities in Biscayne National Park, USA
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Coral communities of Biscayne National Park (BNP) on offshore linear bank-barrier reefs are depauperate of reef corals and have little topographic relief, while those on lagoonal patch reefs have greater coral cover and species richness despite presumably more stressful environmental regimes closer to shore. We hypothesized that differences in rates of coral recruitment and/or of coral survivorship were responsible for these differences in community structure. These processes were investigated by measuring: (1) juvenile and adult coral densities, and (2) size-frequency distributions of smaller coral size classes, at three pairs of bank- and patch-reefs distributed along the north-south range of coral reefs within the Park. In addition, small quadrats (0.25 m2) were censused for colonies <2 cm in size on three reefs (one offshore and one patch reef in the central park, and one intermediate reef at the southern end), and re-surveyed after 1 year. Density and size frequency data confirmed that large coral colonies were virtually absent from the offshore reefs, but showed that juvenile corals were common and had similar densities to those of adjacent bank and patch reefs. Large coral colonies were more common on inshore patch reefs, suggesting lower survivorship (higher mortality) of small and intermediate sized colonies on the offshore reefs. The more limited small-quadrat data showed similar survivorship rates and initial and final juvenile densities at all three sites, but a higher influx of new recruits to the patch reef site during the single annual study period. We consider the size-frequency data to be a better indicator of juvenile coral dynamics, since it is a more time-integrated measurement and was replicated at more sites. We conclude that lack of recruitment does not appear to explain the impoverished coral communities on offshore bank reefs in BNP. Instead, higher juvenile coral mortality appears to be a dominant factor structuring these communities.
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