Coral community responses to declining water quality: Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Posted on: 8 Mar 2015 / Submitted by: Ping

A five-year period (2002–2006) of below-median rainfall followed by a six-year period (2007–2012) of above-median rainfall and seasonal flooding allowed a natural experiment into the effects of runoff on the water quality and subsequent coral community responses in the Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef (Australia). Satellite-derived water quality estimates of total suspended solids (TSS) and chlorophyll-a (Chl) concentration showed marked seasonal variability that was exaggerated during years with high river discharge. During above-median rainfall years, Chl was a seasonally high for a period of 3 months during the wet season (February–April), while TSS was elevated for four months, extending into the dry season (March–June). Coinciding with these extremes in water quality was a reduction in the abundance and shift in the community composition, of juvenile corals. The incidence of coral disease was at a maximum during the transition from years of below-median to years of above-median river discharge. In contrast to juvenile corals, the cover of larger corals remained stable, although the composition of communities varied along environmental gradients. In combination, these results suggest opportunistic recruitment of corals during periods of relatively low environmental stress with selection for more tolerant species occurring during periods of environmental extremes.

Angus Thompson
Thomas Schroeder 
Vittorio E. Brando 
Britta Schaffelke 
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Cross Cutting:
Awareness raising
Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)