Impacts of local and global stressors on coral biodiversity




Maucieri, Dominique

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Global biodiversity losses are being driven by human actions, and coral reef communities are not immune. Local anthropogenic stress and global climate change are rapidly changing coral reefs, through coral bleaching and mortality. How these stressors impact the biodiversity and community structure of corals on tropical reefs will not only affect the communities of fish and invertebrates that rely on coral reefs, but they could have lasting impacts on ecosystem functioning. The record-breaking marine heatwave caused by the 2015/2016 El Niño was superimposed on a strong local human disturbance gradient on Kiritimati, Kiribati, allowing for the investigation of how these combined disturbances affect coral communities. In Chapter 2, I investigated how soft coral cover varies with these disturbances and natural environmental factors, using benthic photoquadrats collected on Kiritimati’s forereefs from 2007 to 2019. Additionally, I conducted a literature review to establish what is already known about soft coral and disturbances, to compare Kiritimati data to that found in the literature. I show that soft corals are grossly understudied, with only a fifth (19/94) of coral studies presenting any results of heat stress effects on soft corals, and even fewer (5%) presenting taxonomic-specific results. On Kiritimati, prior to the 2015/2016 El Niño, soft corals were more common at sheltered sites with lower net primary productivity, but no effect of local disturbance was found. Soft corals were, however, highly vulnerable to heat stress, with a documented complete loss after the heatwave. I also show that soft coral skeletons persisted for years after the heatwave and provided substrate for hard coral recruitment. In Chapter 3, I examined how local and global stressors affected coral diversity, using community composition photoquadrat data collected from 2013 to 2017, and developed a conceptual framework for understanding effects of multiple stressors, when there are both discrete and continuous stressors. Coral alpha diversity (assessed as Hill diversity) exhibited a non-linear relationship with local anthropogenic stress, peaking at intermediate levels, and was negatively impacted by the marine heatwave, such that sites tended to decrease in both coral richness and evenness. Coral beta diversity (assessed as community composition turnover) was significantly impacted by both stressors, but sites exposed to higher levels of anthropogenic stress tended to experience less turnover during the heatwave. Explicitly considering the relationships between the two stressors, I found that it varied depending on the intensity of anthropogenic stress and the diversity metric (i.e., richness vs. composition) examined. For Hill-Richness, I found a tipping point at moderate levels of local anthropogenic stress, below which there was an additive response and above which the response tended towards synergy. In contrast, for Hill-Shannon and Hill-Simpson the responses were additive and there was an antagonistic effect between stressors for community composition. By using the frameworks outlined in this thesis for reporting changes to soft coral due to disturbances, and examining relationships between discrete and continuous stressors, we may better predict how reefs will look in the future and what actions will conserve and assist in the recovery of coral reef ecosystems.



coral, soft coral, multiple stressors, marine heatwave, coral bleaching, diversity, tipping point, anthropogenic effects, climate change, El Niño