There's little doubt that coral reefs the world over face threats on many fronts: pollution, diseases, destructive fishing practices and warming oceans. But reefs appear to be more resistant to one potential menace seaweed than previously thought, according to new research by a team of marine scientists from the United States and Australia.
Their study is the first global-scale analysis of thousands of surveys of individual reefs in all, more than 3,500 examinations of about 1,800 reefs performed between 1996 and 2006. The study appears the June issue of the journal Ecology, which is published by the Ecological Society of America.
"Until now, many scientists have concluded that the world's coral reefs are being overrun by seaweed," said John Bruno of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lead author of the study. "Our findings show that's not the case. Seaweed have taken over and are dominating some reefs, but far fewer than assumed."
The problem with too much seaweed, researchers say, is that it can smother the baby corals, reducing the ability of reefs to recover from other disturbances such as hurricanes and disease outbreaks. Over recent decades, there have been several dramatic examples of such shifts, with one of the most widely known and striking cases occurring in the Caribbean in the 1980s. Following a series of events that disturbed the marine environment (including two major hurricanes, a disease outbreak and the loss of a seaweed-grazing urchin), coral cover on several reefs in Jamaica plummeted from about 70 percent to less than 10 percent, and macroalgae became the dominant life form.
So Bruno, along with colleagues Hugh Sweatman from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and William F. Precht, a Florida-based marine ecologist, set out to determine how bad and how widespread the problem of seaweed-dominated reefs really is.
The team came up with a "phase-shift index" to det
|Contact: John Bruno|
Ecological Society of America