Red Sea Coral Reef Trajectories over 2 Decades Suggest Increasing Community Homogenization and Decline in Coral Size


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Red Sea Coral Reef Trajectories over 2 Decades Suggest Increasing Community Homogenization and Decline in Coral Size

Three independent line intercept transect surveys on northern Red Sea reef slopes conducted in 1988/9 and 1997/8 in Egypt and from 2006–9 in Saudi Arabia were used to compare community patterns and coral size. Coral communities showed scale-dependent variability, highest at fine spatial and taxonomic scale (species-specific within and among reef patterns). At coarser scale (generic pattern across regions), patterns were more uniform (regionally consistent generic dominance on differently exposed reef slopes and at different depths). Neither fine- nor coarse-scale patterns aligned along the sampled 1700 km latitudinal gradient. Thus, a latitudinal gradient that had been described earlier from comparable datasets, separating the Red Sea into three faunistic zones, was no longer apparent. This may indicate subtle changes in species distributions. Coral size, measured as corrected average intercept of corals in transects, had decreased from 1997 to 2009, after having remained constant from 1988 to 1997. Recruitment had remained stable (,12 juvenile corals per m2). Size distributions had not changed significantly but large corals had declined over 20 years. Thus, data from a wide range of sites taken over two decades support claims by others that climate change is indeed beginning to show clear effects on Red Sea reefs.


Climate change is a major threat to the future of the world’s coral reefs [1] and reports from the Red Sea suggest that coral growth has slowed [2]. In general, it has been suggested that coral communities may change in future [1] and that many coral species may disappear [3], which may result in more homogenous coral communities [4]. Such scenarios provide testable hypotheses against long-term datasets. The Red Sea’s location provides a convenient gradient for studies of latitude-dependent global-scale impacts, such as acidification and ocean heat-content. Also
significant local impacts have occurred due to rapid human population growth and urbanization, coastal construction, tourism, reef over-usage [5,6] and destructive fisheries [7].

We sampled along a 1700 km gradient from the Gulf of Suez with some of the northernmost reefs in the western Indo-Pacific, to the Farasan Islands of tropical latitude in southern Saudi Arabia (Fig. 1). The Red Sea contains a typical Indo-Pacific fauna with many peripheral endemics [8,9] and a N-S gradient in species richness and community diversification was described [9]. It is a data rich environment, with reef studies dating to the 18th century and assessment and monitoring work since the 1970s [5,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22] that is useful for comparison.

In the present paper, we evaluate several datasets obtained along the length of the Red Sea by the same researchers over the span of two decades. This rich dataset allows exploration of patterns driven either by spatial or temporal determinants. We examine characteristics of areas sampled at different times, different latitudes to see whether described gradient and patterns [8,9,15,18,22] remain observable or whether intervening impacts (bleaching events, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, increased coastal construction and pollution, increased fisheries, etc.) caused changes.

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