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Title: Early Life-History Dynamics of Caribbean Octocorals: The Critical Role of Larval Supply and Partial Mortality
Recruitment is a key demographic process for maintenance of local populations and recovery following disturbance. For marine invertebrates, distribution and abundances of recruits are impacted by spatiotemporal variation in larval supply, settlement rates and post-settlement survival. However, for colonial and modular organisms, differences in survival and growth between settlers and colonial recruits may also affect recruitment patterns. In the Caribbean, shifts in the benthic community structure favoring octocoral’s have been detected, and recruitment has been suggested as key for octocoral’s resilience. Hence, we studied octocoral recruitment dynamics, and evaluated the role of pre-settlement, settlement and post-settlement processes in recruit’s densities. We performed the study at two sites with different octocoral densities, on the south coast of St. John, United States Virgin Islands, and distinguished between processes occurring to recently settled polyps and to colonial recruits. At both sites, we monitored P. homomalla settlers on settlement tiles for 3 months, and colonial recruits of two of the most abundant genera ( Eunicea and Pseudoplexaura) for 3 years. In addition, we assessed whether recruits morphological traits affected recruitment and divided recruits of the genus Eunicea based on the presence of large calyces. The major contributor to both, single-polyps and colonial recruit densities was larval supply. Single-polyp densities were not limited by the availability of space, settlement cues, or early post-settlement survival. Height was the only predictor of survival and growth of colonial recruits, with potential growth rates increasing with height. However, large recruits suffered partial mortality often, distorting the relationship between recruit age and size, and causing most recruits to remain in the recruit size class (≤5 cm) longer than a year. Octocorals have been resilient to the conditions that have driven the decline of scleractinian corals throughout the Caribbean, and recruitment has been key to that success. Our results are crucial to understand early life history dynamics of Caribbean octocorals, and highlights the need to standardize the definition of recruit among colonial and modular taxa to facilitate inter-specific comparisons, and to understand future changes in coral reef community assemblages.  more » « less
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Frontiers in Marine Science
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National Science Foundation
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