One mechanism giving fleshy algae a competitive advantage over corals during reef degradation is algal-induced and microbially-mediated hypoxia (typically less than 69.5 µmol oxygen L−1). During hypoxic conditions oxygen availability becomes insufficient to sustain aerobic respiration in most metazoans. Algae are more tolerant of low oxygen conditions and may outcompete corals weakened by hypoxia. A key question on the ecological importance of this mechanism remains unanswered: How extensive are local hypoxic zones in highly turbulent aquatic environments, continuously flushed by currents and wave surge? To better understand the concert of biological, chemical, and physical factors that determine the abundance and distribution of oxygen in this environment, we combined 3D imagery, flow measurements, macro- and micro-organismal abundance estimates, and experimentally determined biogenic oxygen and carbon fluxes as input values for a 3D bio-physical model. The model was first developed and verified for controlled flume experiments containing coral and algal colonies in direct interaction. We then developed a three-dimensional numerical model of an existing coral reef plot off the coast of Curaçao where oxygen concentrations for comparison were collected in a small-scale grid using fiberoptic oxygen optodes. Oxygen distribution patterns given by the model were a good predictor for in situ concentrations and indicate widespread localized differences exceeding 50 µmol L-1 over distances less than a decimeter. This suggests that small-scale hypoxic zones can persist for an extended period of time in the turbulent environment of a wave- and surge- exposed coral reef. This work highlights how the combination of three-dimensional imagery, biogenic fluxes, and fluid dynamic modeling can provide a powerful tool to illustrate and predict the distribution of analytes (e.g., oxygen or other bioactive substances) in a highly complex system.
Andreas F. Haas
Coral reefs thrive and provide maximal ecosystem services when they support a multilevel trophic structure and grow in favorable water quality conditions that include high light levels, rapid water flow, and low nutrient levels. Poor water quality and other anthropogenic stressors have caused coral mortality in recent decades, leading to trophic downgrading and the loss of biological complexity on many reefs. Solutions to reverse the causes of trophic downgrading remain elusive, in part because efforts to restore reefs are often attempted in the same diminished conditions that caused coral mortality in the first place. Coral Arks, positively buoyant, midwater structures, are designed to provide improved water quality conditions and supportive cryptic biodiversity for translocated and naturally recruited corals to assemble healthy reef mesocosms for use as longterm research platforms. Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), passive settlement devices, are used to translocate the cryptic reef biodiversity to the Coral Arks, thereby providing a "boost" to natural recruitment and contributing ecological support to the coral health. We modeled and experimentally tested two designs of Arks to evaluate the drag characteristics of the structures and assess their long-term stability in the midwater based on their response to hydrodynamic forces. We then installed two designs of Arks structures at two Caribbean reef sites and measured several water quality metrics associated with the Arks environment over time. At deployment and 6 months after, the Coral Arks displayed enhanced metrics of reef function, including higher flow, light, and dissolved oxygen, higher survival of translocated corals, and reduced sedimentation and microbialization relative to nearby seafloor sites at the same depth. This method provides researchers with an adaptable, long-term platform for building reef communities where local water quality conditions can be adjusted by altering deployment parameters such as the depth and site.
Reef-building corals are ecosystem engineers that compete with other benthic organisms for space and resources. Corals harvest energy through their surface by photosynthesis and heterotrophic feeding, and they divert part of this energy to defend their outer colony perimeter against competitors. Here, we hypothesized that corals with a larger space-filling surface and smaller perimeters increase energy gain while reducing the exposure to competitors. This predicted an association between these two geometric properties of corals and the competitive outcome against other benthic organisms. To test the prediction, fifty coral colonies from the Caribbean island of Curaçao were rendered using digital 3D and 2D reconstructions. The surface areas, perimeters, box-counting dimensions (as a proxy of surface and perimeter space-filling), and other geometric properties were extracted and analyzed with respect to the percentage of the perimeter losing or winning against competitors based on the coral tissue apparent growth or damage. The increase in surface space-filling dimension was the only significant single indicator of coral winning outcomes, but the combination of surface space-filling dimension with perimeter length increased the statistical prediction of coral competition outcomes. Corals with larger surface space-filling dimensions (Ds > 2) and smaller perimeters displayed more winning outcomes, confirming the initial hypothesis. We propose that the space-filling property of coral surfaces complemented with other proxies of coral competitiveness, such as life history traits, will provide a more accurate quantitative characterization of coral competition outcomes on coral reefs. This framework also applies to other organisms or ecological systems that rely on complex surfaces to obtain energy for competition.