Oecologia, 146(3):350-64, 12, 2005. Paper Website abstract bibtex
To date, coral death has been the most conspicuous outcome of warming tropical seas, but as temperatures stabilize at higher values, the consequences for the corals remaining will be mediated by their demographic responses to the sub-lethal effects of temperature. To gain insight into the nature of these responses, here I develop a model to test the effect of increased temperature on populations of three pocilloporid corals at One Tree Island, near the southern extreme of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Using Seriatopora hystrix, S. caliendrum and Pocillopora damicornis as study species, the effects of temperature on growth were determined empirically, and the dynamics of their populations determined under natural temperatures over a 6-month period between 1999 and 2000 [defined as the study year (SY)]. The two data sets were combined in a demographic test of the possibility that the thermal regime projected for the southern GBR in the next 55-83 years--warmer by 3 degrees C than the study year (the SY+3 regime), which is equivalent to 1.4 degrees C warmer than the recent warm year of 1998--would alter coral population trajectories through the effects on coral growth alone; the analyses first were completed by species, then by family after pooling among species. Laboratory experiments showed that growth rates (i.e., calcification) varied significantly among species and temperatures, and displayed curvilinear thermal responses with growth maxima at approximately 27.1 degrees C. Based on these temperature-growth responses, the SY+3 regime is projected to: (1) increase annualized growth rates of all taxa by 24-39%, and defer the timing of peak growth from the summer to the autumn and spring, (2) alter the intrinsic rate of population growth (lambda) for S. hystrix (lambda decreases 26%) and S. caliendrum (lambda increases 5%), but not for P. damicornis, and (3) have a minor effect on lambda (a 0.3% increase) for the Pocilloporidae, largely because lambda varies more among species than it does between temperatures. Ten-year population projections suggest that the effects of a sub-lethal increase in temperature (i.e., the SY+3 regime) are relatively small compared to the interspecific differences in population dynamics, but nevertheless will alter the population size and increase the relative abundance of large colonies at the expense of smaller colonies for all three species, as well as the Pocilloporidae. These effects may play an important role in determining the nuances of coral population structure as seawater warms, and their significance may intensity if the coral species pool is depleted of thermally sensitive species by bleaching.