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Recent disturbances augment community shifts in coral assemblages in Moorea, French Polynesia

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Abstract

Coral reefs are often subject to disturbances that can cause enduring changes in community structure and abundance of coral reef organisms. In Moorea, French Polynesia, frequent disturbances between 1979 and 2003 caused marked shifts in taxonomic composition of coral assemblages. This study explores recent changes in live cover and taxonomic structure of coral communities on the north coast of Moorea, French Polynesia, to assess whether coral assemblages are recovering (returning to a previous Acropora-dominated state) or continuing to move towards an alternative community structure. Coral cover declined by 29.7% between July 2003 and March 2009, mostly due to loss of Acropora and Montipora spp. Coral mortality varied among habitats, with highest levels of coral loss on the outer reef slope (7–20 m depth). In contrast, there was limited change in coral cover within the lagoon, and coral cover actually increased on the reef crest. Observed changes in coral cover and composition correspond closely with the known feeding preferences and observed spatial patterns of Acanthaster planci L., though observed coral loss also coincided with at least one episode of coral bleaching, as well as persistent populations of the corallivorous starfish Culcita novaeguineae Muller & Troschel. While climate change poses an important and significant threat to the future structure and dynamics coral reef communities, outbreaks of A. planci remain a significant cause of coral loss in Moorea. More importantly, these recent disturbances have followed long-term shifts in the structure of coral assemblages, and the relative abundance of both Pocillopora and Porites continue to increase due to disproportionate losses of Acropora and Montipora. Moreover, Pocillopora and Porites dominate assemblages of juvenile corals, suggesting that there is limited potential for a return to an Acropora-dominated state, last recorded in 1979.

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Acknowledgments

This study was authorised by the French Polynesia provincial government and funded by the ARC Centre of Excellence of Coral Reef Studies. Discussions with M. Adjeroud greatly improved understanding of this study system. The authors are indebted to staff at the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Biological Research Station in Moorea for extensive and ongoing logistical support.

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Correspondence to M. S. Pratchett.

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Communicated by Environment Editor Prof. Rob van Woesik

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Pratchett, M.S., Trapon, M., Berumen, M.L. et al. Recent disturbances augment community shifts in coral assemblages in Moorea, French Polynesia. Coral Reefs 30, 183–193 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-010-0678-2

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