Coral Reefs

, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 947–956 | Cite as

Expansion of corals on temperate reefs: direct and indirect effects of marine heatwaves

  • C. A. TuckettEmail author
  • T. de Bettignies
  • J. Fromont
  • T. Wernberg


Globally, many temperate marine communities have experienced significant temperature increases over recent decades in the form of gradual warming and heatwaves. As a result, these communities are shifting towards increasingly subtropical and tropical species compositions. Expanding coral populations have been reported from several temperate reef ecosystems along warming coastlines; these changes have been attributed to direct effects of gradual warming over decades. In contrast, increases in coral populations following shorter-term extreme warming events have rarely been documented. In this study, we compared coral populations on 17 temperate reefs in Western Australia before (2005/06) and after (2013) multiple marine heatwaves (2010–2012) affected the entire coastline. We hypothesised that coral communities would expand and change as a consequence of increasing local populations and recruitment of warm-affinity species. We found differences in coral community structure over time, driven primarily by a fourfold increase of one local species, Plesiastrea versipora, rather than recruitment of warm-affinity species. Coral populations became strongly dominated by small size classes, indicative of recent increased recruitment or recruit survival. These changes were likely facilitated by competitive release of corals from dominant temperate seaweeds, which perished during the heatwaves, rather than driven by direct temperature effects. Overall, as corals are inherently warm-water taxa not commonly associated with seaweed-dominated temperate reefs, these findings are consistent with a net tropicalisation. Our study draws attention to processes other than gradual warming that also influence the trajectory of temperate reefs in a changing ocean.


Tropicalisation Kelp forests Seaweed decline High-latitude corals Plesiastrea versipora 



This study was funded by Grants to TW from the Australian Research Council (FT110100174) and the Herman Slade Foundation (HSF13-13). The initial surveys were supported by the Western Australian Museum, the CSIRO and the Strategic Research Fund for the Marine Environment. We thank Florian de Bettignies for providing a detailed map of the study region (Fig. 1). Three anonymous reviewers assisted in refining earlier drafts. The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

Supplementary material

338_2017_1586_MOESM1_ESM.docx (22 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 21 kb)


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological Sciences, UWA Oceans InstituteThe University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  2. 2.UMS 2006 Patrimoine NaturelMuséum National d’Histoire NaturelleParisFrance
  3. 3.Western Australian MuseumWelshpool DCAustralia

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