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Linkages between coral assemblages and coral proxies of terrestrial exposure along a cross-shelf gradient on the southern Great Barrier Reef

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Abstract

Coral core records, combined with measurements of coral community structure, were used to assess the long-term impact of multiple environmental stressors on reef assemblages along an environmental gradient. Multiple proxies (luminescent lines, Ba/Ca, δ15N) that reflect different environmental conditions (freshwater discharge, sediment delivery to the nearshore, nutrient availability and transformations) were measured in Porites coral cores collected from nearshore reefs at increasing distance from the intensively agricultural region of Mackay (Queensland, Australia). The corals provide a record (1968–2002) of the frequency and intensity of exposure to terrestrial runoff and fertilizer-derived nitrogen and were used to assess how the present-day coral community composition may have been influenced by flood-related disturbance. Reefs closest to the mainland (5–32 km offshore) were characterized by low hard coral cover (≤10%), with no significant differences among locations. Distinct annual luminescent lines and elevated Ba/Ca values (4.98 ± 0.63 μmol mol−1; mean ± SD) in the most inshore corals (Round Top Island; 5 km offshore) indicated chronic, sub-annual exposure to freshwater and resuspended terrestrial sediment that may have historically prevented reef formation. By contrast, corals from Keswick Island (32 km offshore) indicated episodic, high-magnitude exposure to Pioneer River discharge during extreme flood events (e.g., 1974, 1991), with strongly luminescent lines and substantially enriched coral skeletal δ15N (12–14‰). The reef assemblages at Keswick and St. Bees islands were categorically different from all other locations, with high fleshy macroalgal cover (80.1 ± 7.2% and 62.7 ± 7.1%, respective mean ± SE) overgrowing dead reef matrix. Coral records from Scawfell Island (51 km offshore) indicated little exposure to Pioneer catchment influence: all locations from Scawfell and further offshore had total hard and soft coral cover comparable to largely undisturbed nearshore to middle shelf reefs of the southern Great Barrier Reef.

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Acknowledgments

Funding for this project was provided through an ARC Linkage grant (LP050896) to O. Hoegh-Guldberg and M. McCulloch, with significant contributions from the Mackay City Council, the Mackay Whitsunday Natural Resource Management Group and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Fieldwork was conducted aboard the Lara Star, operated by Warren and Barbara Hill, to whom we are very grateful. We thank Les Kinsley, Dave Mucciarone, and Eric Matson for laboratory assistance, and Janice Lough and Terry Done for helpful comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to S. Jupiter.

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Communicated by Environment Editor Prof. Rob van Woesik

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Jupiter, S., Roff, G., Marion, G. et al. Linkages between coral assemblages and coral proxies of terrestrial exposure along a cross-shelf gradient on the southern Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs 27, 887–903 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-008-0422-3

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