Modeled differences of coral life-history traits influence the refugium potential of a remote Caribbean reef

Abstract

Remote populations can influence connectivity and may serve as refugia from climate change. We investigated two reef-building corals (Pseudodiploria strigosa and Orbicella franksi) from the Flower Garden Banks (FGB), the most isolated, high-latitude Caribbean reef system, which, until recently, retained high coral cover. We characterized coral size-frequency distributions, quantified larval mortality rates and onset of competence ex situ, estimated larval production, and created detailed biophysical models incorporating these parameters to evaluate the source–sink dynamics at the FGB from 2009 to 2012. Estimated mortality rates were similar between species, but pre-competency differed dramatically; P. strigosa was capable of metamorphosis within 2.5 d post-fertilization (dpf) and was competent at least until 8 dpf, while O. franksi was not competent until >20 dpf and remained competent up to 120 dpf. To explore the effect of such contrasting life histories on connectivity, we modeled larval dispersal from the FGB assuming pelagic larval durations (PLD) of either 3–20 d, approximating laboratory-measured pre-competency of P. strigosa, or 20–120 d, approximating pre-competency observed in O. franksi. Surprisingly, both models predicted similar probabilities of local retention at the FGB, either by direct rapid reseeding or via long-term persistence in the Loop Current with larvae returning to the FGB within a month. However, our models predicted that short PLDs would result in complete isolation from the rest of the Caribbean, while long PLDs allowed for larval export to more distant northern Caribbean reefs, highlighting the importance of quantifying larval pre-competency dynamics when parameterizing biophysical models to predict larval connectivity. These simulations suggest that FGB coral populations are likely to be largely self-sustaining and highlight the potential of long-PLD corals, such as endangered Orbicella, to act as larval sources for other degraded Caribbean reefs.

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Acknowledgements

Authors Davies and Strader were equal contributors to this study and are joint lead authors. We are grateful to the staff and volunteers at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary for providing boat time, field assistance and permits across several coral spawning field seasons. Thanks to Eli Meyer for assistance in the field. We acknowledge Thanapat Pongwarin and Sarah Guermond for their assistance in the laboratory measuring life-history traits. In addition, we acknowledge ARCCoE for the opportunity to initiate this collaborative study. This research was funded in part by the PADI Foundation Grant to S.W.D. Computing resources were provided by Australia’s National Computational Infrastructure. JK publishes with the permission of the Chief Executive Officer of Geoscience Australia. The authors also acknowledge the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback during the publication process.

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Correspondence to Sarah W. Davies or Marie E. Strader.

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Davies, S.W., Strader, M.E., Kool, J.T. et al. Modeled differences of coral life-history traits influence the refugium potential of a remote Caribbean reef. Coral Reefs 36, 913–925 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-017-1583-8

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Keywords

  • Coral
  • Connectivity
  • Biophysical model
  • Flower Garden Banks
  • Pelagic larval duration
  • Pre-competency