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  1. Abstract

    Marine heatwaves are increasing in frequency and duration, threatening tropical reef ecosystems through intensified coral bleaching events. We examined a strikingly variable spatial pattern of bleaching in Moorea, French Polynesia following a heatwave that lasted from November 2018 to July 2019. In July 2019, four months after the onset of bleaching, we surveyed > 5000 individual colonies of the two dominant coral genera,PocilloporaandAcropora, at 10 m and 17 m water depths, at six forereef sites around the island where temperature was measured. We found severe bleaching increased with colony size for both coral genera, butAcroporableached more severely thanPocilloporaoverall. Acroporableached more at 10 m than 17 m, likely due to higher light availability at 10 m compared to 17 m, or greater daily temperature fluctuation at depth. Bleaching inPocilloporacorals did not differ with depth but instead varied with the interaction of colony size and Accumulated Heat Stress (AHS), in that larger colonies (> 30 cm) were more sensitive to AHS than mid-size (10–29 cm) or small colonies (5–9 cm). Our findings provide insight into complex interactions among coral taxa, colony size, and water depth that produce high spatial variation in bleaching and related coral mortality.

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  2. Abstract

    For many long‐lived taxa, such as trees and corals, older, and larger individuals often have the lowest mortality and highest fecundity. However, climate change‐driven disturbances such as droughts and heatwaves may fundamentally alter typical size‐dependent patterns of mortality and reproduction in these important foundation taxa. Working in Moorea, French Polynesia, we investigated how a marine heatwave in 2019, one of the most intense marine heatwaves at our sites over the past 30 years, drove patterns of coral bleaching and mortality. The marine heatwave drove island‐wide mass coral bleaching that killed up to 76% and 65% of the largest individuals of the two dominant coral genera,PocilloporaandAcropora, respectively. Colonies ofPocilloporaandAcropora≥30 cm diameter were ~3.5× and ~1.3×, respectively, more likely to die than colonies <30‐cm diameter. Typically, annual mortality in these corals is concentrated on the smallest size classes. Yet, this heatwave dramatically reshaped this pattern, with heat stress disproportionately killing larger coral colonies and equalizing annual mortality rates across the size spectrum. This shift in the size‐mortality relationship reduced the overall fecundity of these genera by >60% because big corals are disproportionately important for reproduction on reefs. Additionally, the survivorship of microscopic coral recruits, critical for the recovery of corals following disturbances, declined to 2%, over an order of magnitude lower compared to a year without elevated thermal stress, where 33% of coral recruits survived. While other research has shown that larger corals can bleach more frequently than smaller corals, we show the severe impact this phenomenon can have at the reef‐wide scale. As marine heatwaves become more frequent and intense, disproportionate mortality of the largest, most fecund corals and near‐complete loss of entire cohorts of newly‐settled coral recruits will likely reduce the recovery capacity of these iconic ecosystems.

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