Impact of Herbivory, Structural Complexity, and Sediment on Caribbean Coral Reefs

Alain Duran, Florida International University


The resilience of coral reefs depends, among others, upon local physical and biological characteristics. This dissertation focused on how herbivory, structural complexity, and sedimentation can impact the structure, function, and, ultimately, resilience of Caribbean coral reefs. We filled an important knowledge gap related to trophic niche and ecological roles of surgeonfishes (A. coeruleus and A. tractus), two of the most important herbivorous fishes in the Caribbean. We showed that both species feed primarily on turf algae preventing further progression of algal succession while A. tractus may also help reduce macroalgal abundance by targeting common macroalgal species such as Dictyota spp. We used a factorial experiment to analyze the interactive effects of herbivory (exclosure vs. open plots) and reef structural complexity (vertical vs. horizontal substrate orientation), on the development of benthic communities. We found that vertical substrates were quickly dominated by crustose algae regardless of herbivory treatment while succession of horizontal substrates was determined by herbivory. Our results suggest that at small scale, reef complexity is a major factor determining algal community structure. We investigated why, despite high levels of herbivory, coral cover in South Florida has failed to recover. We surveyed benthic composition, grazing and abiotic characteristics along six spur and groove reefs in the Florida Keys. Using boosted regression tree analyses, we found that sediment abundance was the best predictor of both juvenile and adult corals, which could explain the failure of coral recovery. We studied spatial and temporal changes of reef communities of reefs in Havana, Cuba where global and local stressors have affected coral communities while overfishing and nutrient enrichment has led to low herbivory levels. Our surveys revealed a region-wide high abundance of algae (~60%) as a consequence of heavy overfishing with likely negative consequences on coral recovery. In summary, my dissertation showed context-depend effects of herbivory, structural complexity, and sediment on Caribbean coral reefs. While reduction of herbivory can often suppress coral recovery, on coral reefs with robust herbivore populations, physical factors such as structural complexity and sediment may still limit coral recovery and fundamentally impact reef resilience.^

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Recommended Citation

Duran, Alain, "Impact of Herbivory, Structural Complexity, and Sediment on Caribbean Coral Reefs" (2018). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI10976590.