It’s not all about temperature for corals

31 05 2017


Three of the coral species studied by Muir (2): (a) Acropora pichoni: Pohnpei Island, Pacific Ocean — deep-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; (b) Acropora divaricate: Maldives, Indian ocean — mid-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; and (c) Acropora gemmifera: Orpheus Island, Australia — shallow-water species/IUCN ‘Least Concern’. The IUCN states that the 3 species are vulnerable to climate change (acidification, temperature extremes) and demographic booms of the invading predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci. Photos courtesy of Paul Muir.

Global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is modifying the distribution of many plants and animals. However, marine species are bound to face non-thermal barriers that might preclude their dispersal over wide stretches of the sea. Sunlight is one of those invisible obstacles for corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If we were offered a sumptuous job overseas, our professional success in an unknown place could be limited by factors like cultural or linguistic differences that have nothing to do with our work experience or expertise. If we translate this situation into biodiversity terms, one of the best-documented effects of global warming is the gradual dispersal of species tracking their native temperatures from the tropics to the poles (1). However, as dispersal progresses, many species encounter environmental barriers that are not physical (e.g., a high mountain or a wide river), and whose magnitude could be unrelated to ambient temperatures. Such invisible obstacles can prevent the establishment of pioneer populations away from the source.

Corals are ideal organisms to study this phenomenon because their life cycle is tightly geared to multiple environmental drivers (see ReefBase: Global Information System for Coral Reefs). Indeed, the growth of a coral’s exoskeleton relies on symbiotic zooxanthellae (see video and presentation), a kind of microscopic algae (Dinoflagellata) whose photosynthetic activity is regulated by sea temperature, photoperiod and dissolved calcium in the form of aragonite, among other factors.

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Limited nursery replenishment in coral reefs

27 03 2017
Haemulon sciurus

blue-striped grunt (Haemulon sciurus)

Coral reef fishes are wonderfully diverse in size, form, and function, as well as their need for different habitats throughout the life cycle. Some species spend all of their life in the same kind of coral habitat, while others need different places to breed and feed.

Fishes requiring different habitats as they progress through life often have what we call ‘nurseries’ in which adults lay eggs and the subsequent juveniles remain, and these places are often dominated by mangroves or seagrasses (i.e., they are not part of the coral reef).

While we’ve known for quite some time that when these nursery habitats are not around, adjacent coral reefs have few, if any, of these nursery-dependent species. What we haven’t known until now is just how far the influence of nurseries extends along a coral reef.

In other words, if a nursery is present, just how many new recruits do different areas of a reef receive from it? Read the rest of this entry »

Species-area & species-accumulation curves not the same

30 05 2016

IBI’ve just read an elegant little study that has identified the main determinants of differences in the slope of species-area curves and species-accumulation curves.

That’s a bit of a mouthful for the uninitiated, so if you don’t know much about species-area theory, let me give you a bit of background for why this is an important new discovery.

Perhaps one of the only ‘laws’ in ecology comes from the observation that as you sample from larger and larger areas of any habitat type, the number of species tends to increase. This of course originates from MacArthur & Wilson’s classic book, The Theory of Island Biography (1967), and while simple in basic concept, it has since developed into a multi-headed Hydra of methods, analysis, theory and jargon.

One of the most controversial aspects of generic species-area relationships is the effect of different sampling regimes, a problem I’ve blogged about before. Whether you are sampling once-contiguous forest of habitat patches in a ‘matrix’ of degraded landscape, a wetland complex, a coral reef, or an archipelago of true oceanic islands, the ‘ideal’ models and the interpretation thereof will likely differ, and in sometimes rather important ways from a predictive and/or applied perspective. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not always best to be the big fish

3 02 2016

obrien_fish_2Loosely following the theme of last week’s post, it’s now fairly well established that humans tend to pick on the big species first.

From fewer big trees, declines of big carnivores, elephant & rhino poaching, to fishing down the web, big species tend to cop it hardest when it comes to human-caused ecological disturbance.

While there are a lot of different combinations of traits that make some species more vulnerable to extinction than others (see examples for legumes, amphibians, sharks & teleosts, and mammals), one of the main ones is species size.

Generally speaking, larger species tend to produce fewer offspring and breed later in life than smaller species. This means that despite larger species tending to live longer than their smaller counterparts, their ‘slow’ reproductive output means that they are generally more susceptible to rapid environmental change (mainly via human intervention). In other words, their capacity for self-replacement is often too low to counteract the offtake from direct exploitation or habitat loss.

Despite a reasonable scientific understanding of this extinction-risk principle, the degree to which human disturbance affects species’ distributions is much less well quantified, and this is especially true for marine species.

I’m proud to announce another fascinating paper led by my postdoc, Camille Mellin, that has just come out online in Nature CommunicationsHumans and seasonal climate variability threaten large-bodied coral reef fish with small ranges.

With the world’s largest combined dataset of coral reef fish surveys for the entire Indo-Pacific (including the coral reef fish biodiversity hotspot — the Coral Triangle), we examined which conditions best described the distribution of fishes over a range of body sizes. Read the rest of this entry »

More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »

No more ecology

9 05 2012

To all ecology people who read this blog (students, post-docs, academics), this is an intriguing, provocative and slightly worrying title. As ecology has matured into a full-fledged, hard-core, mathematical science on par with physics, chemistry and genetics (and is arguably today one of the most important sciences given how badly we’ve trashed our own home), its sophistication now threatens to render many of the traditional aspects of ecology redundant.

Let me explain.

As a person who cut his teeth in field ecology (with all the associated dirt, dangers, bites, stings, discomfort, thrills, headaches and disasters), I’ve had my fair share of fun and excitement collecting ecological data. There’s something quaintly Victorian (no, I am not referring to the state next door) about the romantic and obsessive naturalist collecting data to the exclusion of nearly all other aspects of civilised life; the intrepid adventurer in some of us takes over (likely influenced by the likes of David Attenborough) and we convince ourselves that our quest for the lonely datum will heal all of the Earth’s ailments.


As I’ve matured in ecology and embraced its mathematical complexity and beauty, the recurring dilemma is that there are never enough data to answer the really big questions. We have sampled only a fraction of extant species, we know embarrassingly little about how ecosystems respond to disturbance, and we know next to nothing about the complexities of ecosystem services. And let’s not forget our infancy in understanding the synergies of extinctions in the past and projections into the future. Multiply this uncertainty by several orders of magnitude for ocean ecosystems.

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Marine forests dropping off the edge

21 11 2011

This is probably a little late in terms of breaking news, but it’s good fodder for a blog post nonetheless.

I’ve done several posts now on the value (and threats) of marine macroalgae (seaweeds) – the last one hinted that a major paper was imminent regarding the fate of one of the world’s most important centres of macroalgae diversity in response to our rapidly changing climate: southern Australia.

Well, that paper has now come out in the eminent journal Current Biology headed by that crazy Aussie-Viking phycologist, Dr. Thomas Wernberg (byline here: Thomas was just awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship and deserves many congratulations – not least for which the audacity to wear yellow budgie smugglers in public).

Entitled simply “Seaweed communities in retreat from ocean warming“, the short paper belies a hell of a lot of work examining over 60 years of herbarium records indicating MASSIVE shifts in the macroalgae community southwards on both the east and west coasts of Australia (see some media spots here). What do I mean by ‘massive’? Well, about 300 species on average (52 examined in most detail) shifted about 200 km south on the east coast (where warming has been most pronounced), and about 50 km south on the west coast. Read the rest of this entry »