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Concept: Belize Barrier Reef


Global warming is rapidly emerging as a universal threat to ecological integrity and function, highlighting the urgent need for a better understanding of the impact of heat exposure on the resilience of ecosystems and the people who depend on them 1 . Here we show that in the aftermath of the record-breaking marine heatwave on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 2 , corals began to die immediately on reefs where the accumulated heat exposure exceeded a critical threshold of degree heating weeks, which was 3-4 °C-weeks. After eight months, an exposure of 6 °C-weeks or more drove an unprecedented, regional-scale shift in the composition of coral assemblages, reflecting markedly divergent responses to heat stress by different taxa. Fast-growing staghorn and tabular corals suffered a catastrophic die-off, transforming the three-dimensionality and ecological functioning of 29% of the 3,863 reefs comprising the world’s largest coral reef system. Our study bridges the gap between the theory and practice of assessing the risk of ecosystem collapse, under the emerging framework for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems 3 , by rigorously defining both the initial and collapsed states, identifying the major driver of change, and establishing quantitative collapse thresholds. The increasing prevalence of post-bleaching mass mortality of corals represents a radical shift in the disturbance regimes of tropical reefs, both adding to and far exceeding the influence of recurrent cyclones and other local pulse events, presenting a fundamental challenge to the long-term future of these iconic ecosystems.

Concepts: Ecology, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Ecosystem, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Belize Barrier Reef


Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR) continues to suffer from repeated impacts of cyclones, coral bleaching, and outbreaks of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), losing much of its coral cover in the process. This raises the question of the ecosystem’s systemic resilience and its ability to rebound after large-scale population loss. Here, we reveal that around 100 reefs of the GBR, or around 3%, have the ideal properties to facilitate recovery of disturbed areas, thereby imparting a level of systemic resilience and aiding its continued recovery. These reefs (1) are highly connected by ocean currents to the wider reef network, (2) have a relatively low risk of exposure to disturbances so that they are likely to provide replenishment when other reefs are depleted, and (3) have an ability to promote recovery of desirable species but are unlikely to either experience or spread COTS outbreaks. The great replenishment potential of these ‘robust source reefs’, which may supply 47% of the ecosystem in a single dispersal event, emerges from the interaction between oceanographic conditions and geographic location, a process that is likely to be repeated in other reef systems. Such natural resilience of reef systems will become increasingly important as the frequency of disturbances accelerates under climate change.

Concepts: Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Climate, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Crown-of-thorns starfish, Belize Barrier Reef


Natural habitats have the ability to protect coastal communities against the impacts of waves and storms, yet it is unclear how different habitats complement each other to reduce those impacts. Here, we investigate the individual and combined coastal protection services supplied by live corals on reefs, seagrass meadows, and mangrove forests during both non-storm and storm conditions, and under present and future sea-level conditions. Using idealized profiles of fringing and barrier reefs, we quantify the services supplied by these habitats using various metrics of inundation and erosion. We find that, together, live corals, seagrasses, and mangroves supply more protection services than any individual habitat or any combination of two habitats. Specifically, we find that, while mangroves are the most effective at protecting the coast under non-storm and storm conditions, live corals and seagrasses also moderate the impact of waves and storms, thereby further reducing the vulnerability of coastal regions. Also, in addition to structural differences, the amount of service supplied by habitats in our analysis is highly dependent on the geomorphic setting, habitat location and forcing conditions: live corals in the fringing reef profile supply more protection services than seagrasses; seagrasses in the barrier reef profile supply more protection services than live corals; and seagrasses, in our simulations, can even compensate for the long-term degradation of the barrier reef. Results of this study demonstrate the importance of taking integrated and place-based approaches when quantifying and managing for the coastal protection services supplied by ecosystems.

Concepts: Coral, Coral reef, Coral bleaching, Cnidaria, Great Barrier Reef, Coral reefs, Coastal and oceanic landforms, Belize Barrier Reef


Many reef-building corals participate in a mass-spawning event that occurs yearly on the Great Barrier Reef. This coral reproductive event is one of earth’s most prominent examples of synchronised behavior, and coral reproductive success is vital to the persistence of coral reef ecosystems. Although several environmental cues have been implicated in the timing of mass spawning, the specific sensory cues that function together with endogenous clock mechanisms to ensure accurate timing of gamete release are largely unknown. Here, we show that moonlight is an important external stimulus for mass spawning synchrony and describe the potential mechanisms underlying the ability of corals to detect environmental triggers for the signaling cascades that ultimately result in gamete release. Our study increases the understanding of reproductive chronobiology in corals and strongly supports the hypothesis that coral gamete release is achieved by a complex array of potential neurohormones and light-sensing molecules.

Concepts: Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Coral bleaching, Cnidaria, Great Barrier Reef, Reproductive synchrony, Belize Barrier Reef


Understanding animal movement decisions that involve migration is critical for evaluating population connectivity, and thus persistence. Recent work on sharks has shown that often only a portion of the adult population will undertake migrations, while the rest may be resident in an area for long periods. Defining the extent to which adult sharks use specific habitats and their migratory behaviour is essential for assessing their risk of exposure to threats such as fishing and habitat degradation. The present study used acoustic telemetry to examine residency patterns and migratory behaviour of adult bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) along the East coast of Australia. Fifty-six VR2W acoustic receivers were used to monitor the movements of 33 bull sharks in the central Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Both males and females were detected year-round, but their abundance and residency peaked between September and December across years (2012-2014). High individual variability in reef use patterns was apparent, with some individuals leaving the array for long periods, whereas others (36%) exhibited medium (0.20-0.40) or high residency (> 0.50). A large portion of the population (51%) undertook migrations of up to 1,400 km to other coral reefs and/or inshore coastal habitats in Queensland and New South Wales. Most of these individuals (76%) were mature females, and the timing of migrations coincided with the austral summer (Dec-Feb). All migrating individuals (except one) returned to the central GBR, highlighting its importance as a potential foraging ground. Our findings suggest that adult bull sharks appear to be highly dependent on coral reef resources and provide evidence of partial migration, where only a portion of the female population undertook seasonal migrations potentially to give birth. Given that estuarine habitats face constant anthropogenic pressures, understanding partial migration and habitat connectivity of large coastal predators should be a priority for their management.

Concepts: Male, Coral, Coral reef, Human migration, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Bull shark, Belize Barrier Reef


Rotational harvesting is one of the oldest management strategies applied to terrestrial and marine natural resources, with crop rotations dating back to the time of the Roman Empire. The efficacy of this strategy for sessile marine species is of considerable interest given that these resources are vital to underpin food security and maintain the social and economic wellbeing of small-scale and commercial fishers globally. We modeled the rotational zone strategy applied to the multispecies sea cucumber fishery in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and show a substantial reduction in the risk of localized depletion, higher long-term yields, and improved economic performance. We evaluated the performance of rotation cycles of different length and show an improvement in biological and economic performance with increasing time between harvests up to 6 y. As sea cucumber fisheries throughout the world succumb to overexploitation driven by rising demand, there has been an increasing demand for robust assessments of fishery sustainability and a need to address local depletion concerns. Our results provide motivation for increased use of relatively low-information, low-cost, comanagement rotational harvest approaches in coastal and reef systems globally.

Concepts: Agriculture, Earth, Harvest, Rotation, Sustainability, Great Barrier Reef, Roman Empire, Belize Barrier Reef


The coral reefs surrounding Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef have a diverse soundscape that contains an array of bioacoustic phenomena, notably choruses produced by fishes. Six fish choruses identified around Lizard Island exhibited distinctive spatial and temporal patterns from 2014 to 2016. Several choruses displayed site fidelity, indicating that particular sites may represent important habitat for fish species, such as fish spawning aggregations sites. The choruses displayed a broad range of periodicities, from diel to annual, which provides new insights into the ecology of vocalising reef fish species and the surrounding ecosystem. All choruses were affected by one or more environmental variables including temperature and moonlight, the latter of which had a significant influence on the timing and received sound levels. These findings highlight the utility of passive acoustic tools for long-term monitoring and management of coral reefs, which is highly relevant in light of recent global disturbance events, particularly coral bleaching.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Coral bleaching, Metaphysics, Great Barrier Reef, Coral reefs, Belize Barrier Reef


Networks of no-take marine reserves (NTMRs) are widely advocated for preserving exploited fish stocks and for conserving biodiversity. We used underwater visual surveys of coral reef fish and benthic communities to quantify the short- to medium-term (5 to 30 years) ecological effects of the establishment of NTMRs within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). The density, mean length, and biomass of principal fishery species, coral trout (Plectropomus spp., Variola spp.), were consistently greater in NTMRs than on fished reefs over both the short and medium term. However, there were no clear or consistent differences in the structure of fish or benthic assemblages, non-target fish density, fish species richness, or coral cover between NTMR and fished reefs. There was no indication that the displacement and concentration of fishing effort reduced coral trout populations on fished reefs. A severe tropical cyclone impacted many survey reefs during the study, causing similar declines in coral cover and fish density on both NTMR and fished reefs. However, coral trout biomass declined only on fished reefs after the cyclone. The GBRMP is performing as expected in terms of the protection of fished stocks and biodiversity for a developed country in which fishing is not excessive and targets a narrow range of species. NTMRs cannot protect coral reefs directly from acute regional-scale disturbance but, after a strong tropical cyclone, impacted NTMR reefs supported higher biomass of key fishery-targeted species and so should provide valuable sources of larvae to enhance population recovery and long-term persistence.

Concepts: Fish, Coral, Coral reef, Coral bleaching, Term, Great Barrier Reef, Marine Protected Area, Belize Barrier Reef


Current velocity in aquatic environments has major implications for the diversity, abundance and ecology of aquatic organisms, but quantifying these currents has proven difficult. This study utilises a simple and inexpensive instrument (<$150) to provide a detailed current velocity profile of the coral-reef system around Lizard Island (Great Barrier Reef, Australia) at a spatial and temporal scale relevant to the ecology of individual benthos and fish. The instrument uses load-cell sensors to provide a correlation between sensor output and ambient current velocity of 99%. Each instrument is able to continuously record current velocities to >500 cms(-1) and wave frequency to >100 Hz over several weeks. Sensor data are registered and processed at 16 MHz and 10 bit resolution, with a measuring precision of 0.06±0.04%, and accuracy of 0.51±0.65% (mean ±S.D.). Each instrument is also pressure rated to 120 m and shear stresses ≤20 kNm(-2) allowing deployment in harsh environments. The instrument was deployed across 27 coral reef sites covering the crest (3 m), mid-slope (6 m) and deep-slope (9 m depth) of habitats directly exposed, oblique or sheltered from prevailing winds. Measurements demonstrate that currents over the reef slope and crest varies immensely depending on depth and exposure: Currents differ up to 9-fold within habitats only separated by 3 m depth and 15-fold between exposed, oblique and sheltered habitats. Comparisons to ambient weather conditions reveal that currents around Lizard Island are largely wind driven. Zero to 22.5 knot winds correspond directly to currents of 0 to >82 cms(-1), while tidal currents rarely exceed 5.5 cms(-1). Rather, current velocity increases exponentially as a function of wave height (0 to 1.6 m) and frequency (0.54 to 0.20 Hz), emphasizing the enormous effect of wind and waves on organisms in these shallow coral reef habitats.

Concepts: Coral, Coral reef, Ecosystem, Wave, Frequency, Wind, Great Barrier Reef, Belize Barrier Reef


Understanding the effects of climatic variability on sediment dynamics is hindered by limited ability of current models to simulate long-term evolution of sediment transfer from source to sink and associated morphological changes. We present a new approach based on a reduced-complexity model which computes over geological time: sediment transport from landmasses to coasts, reworking of marine sediments by longshore currents, and development of coral reef systems. Our framework links together the main sedimentary processes driving mixed siliciclastic-carbonate system dynamics. It offers a methodology for objective and quantitative sediment fate estimations over regional and millennial time-scales. A simulation of the Holocene evolution of the Great Barrier Reef shows: (1) how high sediment loads from catchments erosion prevented coral growth during the early transgression phase and favoured sediment gravity-flows in the deepest parts of the northern region basin floor (prior to 8 ka before present (BP)); (2) how the fine balance between climate, sea-level, and margin physiography enabled coral reefs to thrive under limited shelf sedimentation rates after ~6 ka BP; and, (3) how since 3 ka BP, with the decrease of accommodation space, reduced of vertical growth led to the lateral extension of reefs consistent with available observational data.

Concepts: Earth, Sediment, Coral reef, Sedimentary rock, Erosion, Fossil, Great Barrier Reef, Belize Barrier Reef