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Oecologia. 2017 May;184(1):247-257. doi: 10.1007/s00442-017-3859-7. Epub 2017 Apr 4.

Facilitation in Caribbean coral reefs: high densities of staghorn coral foster greater coral condition and reef fish composition.

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Cooperative Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Miami, FL, 33149, USA.
Protected Resources Division, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, Miami, FL, 33149, USA.
Cooperative Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Miami, FL, 33149, USA.


Recovery of the threatened staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) is posited to play a key role in Caribbean reef resilience. At four Caribbean locations (including one restored and three extant populations), we quantified characteristics of contemporary staghorn coral across increasing conspecific densities, and investigated a hypothesis of facilitation between staghorn coral and reef fishes. High staghorn densities in the Dry Tortugas exhibited significantly less partial mortality, higher branch growth, and supported greater fish abundances compared to lower densities within the same population. In contrast, partial mortality, branch growth, and fish community composition did not vary with staghorn density at the three other study locations where staghorn densities were lower overall. This suggests that density-dependent effects between the coral and fish community may only manifest at high staghorn densities. We then evaluated one facilitative mechanism for such density-dependence, whereby abundant fishes sheltering in dense staghorn aggregations deliver nutrients back to the coral, fueling faster coral growth, thereby creating more fish habitat. Indeed, dense staghorn aggregations within the Dry Tortugas exhibited significantly higher growth rates, tissue nitrogen, and zooxanthellae densities than sparse aggregations. Similarly, higher tissue nitrogen was induced in a macroalgae bioassay outplanted into the same dense and sparse aggregations, confirming greater bioavailability of nutrients at high staghorn densities. Our findings inform staghorn restoration efforts, suggesting that the most effective targets may be higher coral densities than previously thought. These coral-dense aggregations may reap the benefits of positive facilitation between the staghorn and fish community, favoring the growth and survivorship of this threatened species.


Acropora cervicornis; Coral growth; Haemulids; Positive density-dependence; Reef restoration

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