Flattening of Caribbean coral reefs: region-wide declines in architectural complexity

Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, Nicholas K. Dulvy, Jennifer A. Gill, Isabelle M. Côté, Andrew R. Watkinson

Abstract

Coral reefs are rich in biodiversity, in large part because their highly complex architecture provides shelter and resources for a wide range of organisms. Recent rapid declines in hard coral cover have occurred across the Caribbean region, but the concomitant consequences for reef architecture have not been quantified on a large scale to date. We provide, to our knowledge, the first region-wide analysis of changes in reef architectural complexity, using nearly 500 surveys across 200 reefs, between 1969 and 2008. The architectural complexity of Caribbean reefs has declined nonlinearly with the near disappearance of the most complex reefs over the last 40 years. The flattening of Caribbean reefs was apparent by the early 1980s, followed by a period of stasis between 1985 and 1998 and then a resumption of the decline in complexity to the present. Rates of loss are similar on shallow (<6 m), mid-water (6–20 m) and deep (>20 m) reefs and are consistent across all five subregions. The temporal pattern of declining architecture coincides with key events in recent Caribbean ecological history: the loss of structurally complex Acropora corals, the mass mortality of the grazing urchin Diadema antillarum and the 1998 El Nino Southern Oscillation-induced worldwide coral bleaching event. The consistently low estimates of current architectural complexity suggest regional-scale degradation and homogenization of reef structure. The widespread loss of architectural complexity is likely to have serious consequences for reef biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and associated environmental services.

Footnotes

    • Received February 26, 2009.
    • Accepted May 13, 2009.
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