Insight into coral reef ecosystems: investigations into the application of acoustics to monitor coral reefs and how corallivorous fish respond to mass coral mortality.




Dimoff, Sean

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Coral reefs around the world are threatened by a variety of sources, from localized impacts, including overfishing and coastal development, to global temperature increases and ocean acidification. Conserving these marine biodiversity havens requires both global and local action informed by scientific research. In this thesis, I use data collected from the coral reefs around Kiritimati atoll (Republic of Kiribati) in the central equatorial Pacific, first to assess the applicability of two common metrics used in passive underwater acoustic research, and second to examine the effects of a marine heatwave and local human disturbance on an assemblage of corallivorous fish. Using acoustic data recorded in 2017 and 2018 on reefs around Kiritimati, I assess how sound pressure level (SPL) and the acoustic complexity index (ACI) respond to changes in fish sounds in a low frequency band (160 Hz – 1 kHz) and snapping shrimp snaps in a high frequency band (1 kHz – 22 kHz). I found that while SPL was positively correlated with increases in fish sounds and snap density, changes in ACI were dependent upon the settings chosen for its calculation, with the density of snaps negatively correlated with ACI across all settings. These findings provide evidence that despite its quick and prolific adoption, acoustic metrics like ACI should be thoroughly field-tested and standardized before they are applied to new ecosystems like coral reefs. Next, using underwater visual censuses (UVCs) of reef fish assemblages, I quantified how two functional groups of corallivores, obligate and facultative, responded to a mass coral mortality event created by the 2015-2016 El Niño. Declines in abundance of both groups were largely driven by the response of coral-associated damselfishes, Plectroglyphidodon johnstonianus in the obligate group and Plectroglyphidodon dickii in the facultative group, to heat stress and subsequent coral mortality. I also observed a significant decline in the species richness of obligate corallivores, and a continued decline in the abundance of obligate corallivores three years after the mass coral mortality event. Additionally, facultative corallivore abundance increased with disturbance, although the effect was modulated by year, likely due to their more adaptable diets. Corallivore assemblage structure was also influenced by the heat stress event, recovery, and local human disturbance. These results detail how an entire corallivorous assemblage is impacted by a coral mortality event and incidentally provide a timeline for corallivore decline. Together, these results provide information about new ways of monitoring coral reefs, and the ways in which two components of the reef fish community, obligate and facultative corallivores, respond to a mass coral mortality event.



Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM), Sound Pressure Level (SPL), Acoustic Complexity Index (ACI), Coral Reef, Coral Reef Fishes, Corallivore, El Niño, Marine Heatwave, Underwater Acoustics