Spatial patterning of coral reef sessile benthic organisms can constrain competitive and demographic rates, with implications for dynamics over a range of time scales. However, techniques for quantifying and analysing reefscape behaviour, particularly at short to intermediate time scales (weeks to decades), are lacking. An analysis of the dynamics of coral reefscapes simulated with a lattice model shows consistent trends that can be categorized into four stages: a repelling stage that moves rapidly away from an unstable initial condition, a transient stage where spatial rearrangements bring key competitors into contact, an attracting stage where the reefscape decays to a steady-state attractor, and an attractor stage. The transient stage exhibits nonlinear dynamics, whereas the other stages are linear. The relative durations of the stages are affected by the initial spatial configuration as characterized by coral aggregation-a measure of spatial clumpiness, which together with coral and macroalgae fractional cover, more completely describe modelled reefscape dynamics. Incorporating diffusional processes results in aggregated patterns persisting in the attractor. Our quantitative characterization of reefscape dynamics has possible applications to other spatio-temporal systems and implications for reef restoration: high initial aggregation patterns slow losses in herbivore-limited systems and low initial aggregation configurations accelerate growth in herbivore-dominated systems.
Keywords: aggregation; coral–algae; pattern formation; state space; time scales; transient dynamics.