Coral reefs worldwide are increasingly disturbed by environmental events that are causing their decline, yet some coral reefs recover. UCSB researchers have discovered that the health of coral reefs in the South Pacific island of Moorea, in French Polynesia, may be due to protection by parrotfish and surgeonfish that eat algae, along with the protection of reefs that shelter juvenile fish.
The findings are published in a recent issue of the journal PLoS ONE. The UCSB research team is part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-Term Ecological Research (MCR LTER) project, funded by the National Science Foundation.
In many cases, especially in the case of severely damaged reefs in the Caribbean, coral reefs that suffer large losses of live coral often become overgrown with algae and never return to a state where the reefs are again largely covered by live coral. In contrast, the reefs surrounding Moorea experienced large losses of live coral in the past –– most recently in the early 1980's –– and have returned each time to a system dominated by healthy, live corals.
"We wanted to know why Moorea's reefs seem to act differently than other reefs," said Tom Adam, first author, research associate with MCR LTER, and postdoctoral fellow at UCSB's Marine Science Institute. "Specifically, we wanted to know what ecological factors might be responsible for the dramatic patterns of recovery observed in Moorea."The research team was surprised by its findings. The biomass of herbivores on the reef –– fish and other animals that eat plants like algae –– increased dramatically following the loss of live coral. "What was surprising to us was that the numbers of these species also increased dramatically," said Andrew Brooks, co-author, deputy program director of MCR LTER, and associate project scientist with MSI. "We were not simply seeing a case of bigger, fatter fishes –– we were seeing many more parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, all of whom happened to be bigger and fatter. We wanted to know where these new fishes were coming from."
"We discovered that these fringing reefs act as a nursery ground for baby fishes, most notably herbivorous fishes," said Brooks. "With more food available in the form of algae, the survivorship of these baby parrotfishes and surgeonfishes increased, providing more individuals to help control the algae on the fore reef. In effect, the large numbers of parrotfishes and surgeonfishes are acting like thousands of fishy lawnmowers, keeping the algae cropped down to levels low enough that there is still space for new baby corals to settle onto the reef and begin to grow."
A major reason the reefs in the Caribbean do not recover after serious disturbances is because these reefs lack healthy populations of parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, due to the effects of overfishing, explained Adam. "Without these species to help crop the algae down, these reefs quickly become overgrown with algae, a situation that makes it very hard for corals to re-establish themselves," he said.
Managers have tried to reverse the trend of overfishing through the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), where fishing is severely restricted or prohibited. "Our results suggest that this strategy may not be enough to reverse the trend of coral reefs becoming algal reefs," said Brooks. "Our new and very novel results suggest that it also is vital to protect the fringing reefs that serve as nursery grounds. Without these nursery grounds, populations of parrotfishes and surgeonfishes can't respond to increasing amounts of algae on the reefs by outputting more baby herbivores."
In short, the research team found that by using MPAs, managers can help protect adult fish, producing bigger, fatter fish. "But if you don't protect the nursery habitat –– the babies produced by these bigger fish, or by fish in other, nearby areas –– you can't increase the overall numbers of the important algae-eating fish on the reef," said Brooks.
According to the scientists, it appears that Moorea's reefs may recover. "One final bit of good news is that we are seeing tens of thousands of baby corals, some less than a half-inch in diameter, on the fore reefs surrounding Moorea," said Brooks.
MCR researchers will follow the coral reef recovery process over the next decade or more, in search of additional information that can aid managers of the world's coral reefs.
Additional co-authors are Russell J. Schmitt and Sally J. Holbrook of UCSB's Marine Science Institute and the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology; Peter J. Edmunds and Robert C. Carpenter of California State University, Northridge; and Giacomo Bernardi, of UC Santa Cruz.
Gail Gallessich | EurekAlert!
Blacklists Protect the Rainforest
24.09.2015 | Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
Small Alga – Great Effect
22.09.2015 | Leibniz-Zentrum für Marine Tropenökologie (ZMT)
The Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will present how laser-based technologies can contribute to the laboratory of the future at the LABVOLUTION in Hannover in Hall 9, Stand E67/09, from October 6th to 8th, 2015. As a part of the model lab smartLAB, the LZH is showing how additive manufacturing, better known as 3-D printing, can make experimental setups more flexible.
Twelve partners from science and industry are presenting an intelligent and innovative model lab at the special display smartLAB. A part of this intelligent...
Before embarking on a transcontinental journey, jet airplanes fill up with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. In the event of a crash, such large quantities of fuel increase the severity of an explosion upon impact.
Researchers at Caltech and JPL have discovered a polymeric fuel additive that can reduce the intensity of postimpact explosions that occur during accidents and...
When surgical residents need to practice a complicated procedure to fashion a new ear for children without one, they typically get a bar of soap, carrot or an apple.
To treat children with a missing or under-developed ear, experienced surgeons harvest pieces of rib cartilage from the child and carve them into the framework...
Walking an obstacle course on Earth is relatively easy. Walking an obstacle course on Earth after being in space for six months is not quite as simple. The...
01.10.2015 | Event News
30.09.2015 | Event News
17.09.2015 | Event News
02.10.2015 | Medical Engineering
02.10.2015 | Materials Sciences
02.10.2015 | Trade Fair News