Ecological limitations to the resilience of coral reefs

Author(s): Mora, C., N.A.J. Graham, M. Nyström
In: Coral Reefs 35: 1271 – 1280
Year: 2016
Type: Journal / article
Theme affiliation: Marine
Link to centre authors: Nyström, Magnus
Full reference: Mora, C., N.A.J. Graham, M. Nyström. 2016. Ecological limitations to the resilience of coral reefs. Coral Reefs 35: 1271 – 1280


The decline of coral reefs has been broadly attributed to human stressors being too strong and pervasive, whereas biological processes that may render coral reefs fragile have been sparsely considered. Here we review several ecological factors that can limit the ability of coral reefs to withstand disturbance. These include: (1) Many species lack the adaptive capacity to cope with the unprecedented disturbances they currently face; (2) human disturbances impact vulnerable life history stages, reducing reproductive output and the supply of recruits essential for recovery; (3) reefs can be vulnerable to the loss of few species, as niche specialization or temporal and spatial segregation makes each species unique (i.e., narrow ecological redundancy); in addition, many foundation species have similar sensitivity to disturbances, suggesting that entire functions can be lost to single disturbances; and (4) feedback loops and extinction vortices may stabilize degraded states or accelerate collapses even if stressors are removed. This review suggests that the degradation of coral reefs is due to not only the severity of human stressors but also the “fragility” of coral reefs. As such, appropriate governance is essential to manage stressors while being inclusive of ecological process and human uses across transnational scales. This is a considerable but necessary upgrade in current management if the integrity, and delivery of goods and services, of coral reefs is to be preserved.


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