, Volume 247, Issue 1–3, pp 121–132 | Cite as

Phase shifts in coral reef communities and their ecological significance

  • T. J. Done
Coral reef ecosystems


Many coral reefs around the world have degraded to a degree that their present intrinsic value and utility are greatly reduced: (mass coral mortality followed by algal invasions; local depletions of reef fisheries; deficit of reef accretion compared to physical and biological erosion). Though we can sometimes identify proximal causes (outbreaks of coral predators and eroders; over-fishing; habitat destruction), we do not have a good understanding of how population, community and ecosystem structure and function differ in degraded from un-degraded reefs. The deficiencies in our understanding limit our ability to interpret the long-term significance of reef degradation, and therefore to develop scientifically based plans for conservation and management of reefs.

A particular course of action, or lack of action, based on uncritical acceptance of any of the various views of temporal variability can lead to further deterioration of specific reefs. None of these views — that reefs are either inherently robust, inherently fragile, or inherently resilient — is true over all time-space scales. This presentation reviews various models and case studies which suggest that reefs can be knocked precipitously or move slowly from one phase (coral-dominated) to another (coral-depleted and/or algal dominated). Transitions in the other direction (‘recovery’) involve changes (e.g. succession) in populations and communities (of all reef-associated biota, not just sessile benthos), and in reef function (e.g. community metabolism, trophodynamics) which are of great intrinsic interest but only poorly understood.

Key words

coral reef degradation management macroalgae phase-shift 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • T. J. Done
    • 1
  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsville MCAustralia

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