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  1. Abstract

    As the major form of coral reef regime shift, stony coral to macroalgal transitions have received considerable attention. In the Caribbean, however, regime shifts in which scleractinian corals are replaced by octocoral assemblages hold potential for maintaining reef associated communities. Accordingly, forecasting the resilience of octocoral assemblages to future disturbance regimes is necessary to understand these assemblages' capacity to maintain reef biodiversity. We parameterised integral projection models quantifying the survival, growth, and recruitment of the octocorals,Antillogorgia americana,Gorgonia ventalina, andEunicea flexuosa,in St John, US Virgin Islands, before, during, and after severe hurricane disturbance. Using these models, we forecast the density of populations of each species under varying future hurricane regimes. We demonstrate that although hurricanes reduce population growth,A. americana,G. ventalina, andE. flexuosaeach display a capacity for quick recovery following storm disturbance. Despite this recovery potential, we illustrate how the population dynamics of each species correspond with a longer-term decline in their population densities. Despite their resilience to periodic physical disturbance events, ongoing global change jeopardises the future viability of octocoral assemblages.

     
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  2. Unlike reef-building, scleractinian corals, Caribbean soft corals (octocorals) have not suffered marked declines in abundance associated with anthropogenic ocean warming. Both octocorals and reef-building scleractinians depend on a nutritional symbiosis with single-celled algae living within their tissues. In both groups, increased ocean temperatures can induce symbiont loss (bleaching) and coral death. Multiple heat waves from 2014 to 2016 resulted in widespread damage to reef ecosystems and provided an opportunity to examine the bleaching response of three Caribbean octocoral species. Symbiont densities declined during the heat waves but recovered quickly, and colony mortality was low. The dominant symbiont genotypes within a host generally did not change, and all colonies hosted symbiont species in the genusBreviolum.Their association with thermally tolerant symbionts likely contributes to the octocoral holobiont’s resistance to mortality and the resilience of their symbiont populations. The resistance and resilience of Caribbean octocorals offer clues for the future of coral reefs.

     
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 24, 2024
  3. Abstract

    The three‐dimensional structure of habitats is a critical component of species' niches driving coexistence in species‐rich ecosystems. However, its influence on structuring and partitioning recruitment niches has not been widely addressed. We developed a new method to combine species distribution modelling and structure from motion, and characterized three‐dimensional recruitment niches of two ecosystem engineers on Caribbean coral reefs, scleractinian corals and gorgonians. Fine‐scale roughness was the most important predictor of suitable habitat for both taxa, and their niches largely overlapped, primarily due to scleractinians' broader niche breadth. Crevices and holes at mm scales on calcareous rock with low coral cover were more suitable for octocorals than for scleractinian recruits, suggesting that the decline in scleractinian corals is facilitating the recruitment of octocorals on contemporary Caribbean reefs. However, the relative abundances of the taxa were independent of the amount of suitable habitat on the reef, emphasizing that niche processes alone do not predict recruitment rates.

     
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  4. Background Among species with size structured demography, population structure is determined by size specific survival and growth rates. This interplay is particularly important among recently settled colonial invertebrates for which survival is low and growth is the only way of escaping the high mortality that small colonies are subject to. Gorgonian corals settling on reefs can grow into colonies of millions of polyps and can be meters tall. However, all colonies start their benthic lives as single polyps, which are subject to high mortality rates. Annual survival among these species increases with size, reflecting the ability of colonies to increasingly survive partial mortality as they grow larger. Methods Data on survival and growth of gorgonian recruits in the genera Eunicea and Pseudoplexaura at two sites on the southern coast of St John, US Virgin Islands were used to generate a stage structured model that characterizes growth of recruits from 0.3 cm until they reach 5 cm height. The model used the frequency distributions of colony growth rates to incorporate variability into the model. Results High probabilities of zero and negative growth increase the time necessary to reach 5 cm and extends the demographic bottleneck caused by high mortality to multiple years. Only 5% of the recruits in the model survived and reached 5 cm height and, on average, recruits required 3 y to reach 5 cm height. Field measurements of recruitment rates often use colony height to differentiate recruits from older colonies, but height cannot unambiguously identify recruits due to the highly variable nature of colony growth. Our model shows how recruitment rates based on height average recruitment and survival across more than a single year, but size-based definitions of recruitment if consistently used can characterize the role of supply and early survival in the population dynamics of species. 
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  5. 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. 
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  6. null (Ed.)
    Successful recruitment is critical to the maintenance and resilience of populations and may be at the core of the transition from scleractinian to octocoral dominated faunas on some Caribbean reefs. For sessile invertebrates, recruitment incorporates the composite effects of larval supply, settlement and survival. The relative success of these processes differs between species and successful recruitment may be achieved through different life history strategies. Recruitment of six abundant and widespread Antillogorgia spp. was assessed at six sites on Little Bahama Bank from 2009–2012. Identification of recruits to species level, based on microsatellite analyses, revealed differences in recruitment and survival between species, sites and ears. The broadcast spawning species, A. americana and A. acerosa had low rates of early recruitment and postsettlement survival. Higher levels of recruitment success were achieved among brooding and surface brooding species following somewhat different patterns of early recruitment and survival. The internal brooder Antillogorgia hystrix had the highest recruitment at five of the sites but low survival dramatically reduced its abundance and after a year it had similar densities as the surface brooding species, A. elisabethae and A. bipinnata. The brooders have smaller colonies and will produce fewer larvae than the broadcast spawning species, but they release competent larvae which probably accounts for their higher recruitment rates. The Antillogorgia illustrate the diversity of successful reproductive strategies exhibited by octocorals, and differences in the life history strategies among these congeners are best characterized by their mode of larval development. 
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  7. Coral reefs throughout the tropics have experienced large declines in abundance of scleractinian corals over the last few decades, and some reefs are becoming functionally dominated by animal taxa other than scleractinians. This phenomenon is striking on many shallow reefs in the tropical western Atlantic, where arborescent octocorals now are numerically and functionally dominant. Octocorals are one of several taxa that have been overlooked for decades in analyses of coral reef community dynamics, and our understanding of why octocorals are favored (whereas scleractinians are not) on some modern reefs, and how they will affect the function of future reef communities, is not commensurate with the task of scientifically responding to the coral reef crisis. We summarize the biological and ecological features predisposing octocorals for success under contemporary conditions, and focus on those features that could have generated resistance and resilience of octocoral populations to environmental change on modern reefs. There is a rich set of opportunities for rapid advancement in understanding the factors driving the success of octocorals on modern reefs, but we underscore three lines of inquiry: (1) the functional implications of strongly mixotrophic, polytrophic, and plastic nutrition, (2) the capacity to recruit at high densities and maintain rapid initial rates of vertical growth, and (3) the emergent properties associated with dense animal forests at high colony densities. 
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  8. Abstract

    Patterns of population biology and community structure can be studied by looking closely at the ontogeny and reproductive biology of reef‐building organisms. This knowledge is particularly important for Caribbean octocorals, which seem to be more resilient to long‐term environmental change than scleractinian corals and provide some of the same ecological services. We monitored the development of the black sea rod,Plexaura homomalla, a common, widely distributed octocoral on shallow Caribbean reefs, from eggs to three‐polyp colonies over the course of 10 weeks. Gametes were collectedex situon St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, during spawning events that occurred 3–6 days after the July full moon. Cleavage started 3.0 hr after fertilization and was holoblastic, equal, and radial. Embryos were positively buoyant until becoming planulae at 3 days after fertilization. Planulae were competent to settle 4 days after fertilization. Symbiodiniaceae began infecting polyps ~8 days after fertilization. Overall, development was typical for Caribbean octocorals, except for an increase in the number of embryos between 3.5 and 6.0 hr after fertilization.

     
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