, Volume 20, Issue 7, pp 1337–1350 | Cite as

Improved Coral Population Estimation Reveals Trends at Multiple Scales on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

  • Julie VercelloniEmail author
  • Kerrie Mengersen
  • Fabrizio Ruggeri
  • M. Julian Caley


The global erosion of biodiversity presents unique challenges for identifying major changes in population dynamics, establishing their causes, and managing and conserving affected ecosystems at broad spatial scales. Adaptive learning approaches connecting different spatial scales through the transfer of hierarchical information are powerful tools to address such challenges. Here, we use a Semi-Parametric Bayesian Hierarchical (SPa-BaH) model to estimate coral cover trajectories using 16 years of a broad-scale survey on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The spatiotemporal variability of coral populations has been considered by separating three-tiered spatial scales and allowing for alternating phases of increasing and decreasing in the estimation of their trajectories. Model estimates revealed coral cover trajectories that were highly variable according to location but that fairly consistently declined at a regional spatial scale. Notwithstanding this general trend, individual reefs within subregions in the central part of the GBR often displayed different trajectory types between sites separated by only a few hundred meters. These coral dynamics were also associated with reduced recovery rates in the Cairns and Swain subregions. Our study highlights the importance of accounting for local variation in coral cover when estimating the spatiotemporal trends in coral cover trajectories, in this case, at the GBR scale. By retaining information at different hierarchical spatial scales, our SPa-BaH model supports better estimation of large-scale coral cover trajectories. The quantitative approaches developed here can also be applied to other species with complex dynamics thereby enhancing estimations of their trajectories at local- and larger-scales and options for their management.


coral reef coral cover population responses Acropora spp. nonlinear population dynamics uncertainty large spatial scales recovery rate decline rate disturbances 



We thank Samantha Low-Choy, Mohsen Kayal and Alan Pearse for their contributions to the paper. We also thank all staff from the Australian Institute of Marine Science Long-term Monitoring Program who contributed to the collection of the data used here.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Julie Vercelloni
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Kerrie Mengersen
    • 1
    • 2
  • Fabrizio Ruggeri
    • 3
    • 4
  • M. Julian Caley
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Mathematical SciencesQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical FrontiersBrisbaneAustralia
  3. 3.CNR IMATIMilanItaly
  4. 4.Institute for Future EnvironmentsQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia

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