Seasonal regulation of herbivory and nutrient effects on macroalgal recruitment and succession in a Florida coral reef

PeerJ. 2016 Nov 2;4:e2643. doi: 10.7717/peerj.2643. eCollection 2016.

Abstract

Herbivory and nutrient enrichment are drivers of benthic dynamics of coral reef macroalgae; however, their impact may vary seasonally. In this study we evaluated the effects of herbivore pressure, nutrient availability and potential propagule supply on seasonal recruitment and succession of macroalgal communities on a Florida coral reef. Recruitment tiles, replaced every three months, and succession tiles, kept in the field for nine months, were established in an ongoing factorial nutrient enrichment-herbivore exclusion experiment. The ongoing experiment had already created very different algal communities across the different herbivory and nutrient treatments. We tracked algal recruitment, species richness, and species abundance through time. Our results show seasonal variation in the effect of herbivory and nutrient availability on recruitment of coral reef macroalgae. In the spring, when there was higher macroalgal species richness and abundance of recruits, herbivory appeared to have more control on macroalgal community structure than did nutrients. In contrast, there was no effect of either herbivory or nutrient enrichment on macroalgal communities on recruitment tiles in cooler seasons. The abundance of recruits on tiles was positively correlated with the abundance of algal in the ongoing, established experiment, suggesting that propagule abundance is likely a strong influence on algal recruitment and early succession. Results of the present study suggest that abundant herbivorous fishes control recruitment and succession of macroalgae, particularly in the warm season when macroalgal growth is higher. However, herbivory appears less impactful on algal recruitment and community dynamics in cooler seasons. Ultimately, our data suggest that the timing of coral mortality (e.g., summer vs. winter mortality) and freeing of benthic space may strongly influence the dynamics of algae that colonize open space.

Keywords: Algae; Coral reef; Herbivorous fish; Nutrients; Recruitment; Season; Succession.

Grant support

This work was funded by grant OCE 1130786 from the National Science Foundation to DE Burkepile and R. Vega Thurber. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.