Implications of 2D versus 3D surveys to measure the abundance and composition of benthic coral reef communities
A paramount challenge in coral reef ecology is to estimate the abundance and composition of the communities residing in such complex ecosystems. Traditional 2D projected surface cover estimates neglect the 3D structure of reefs and reef organisms, overlook communities residing in cryptic reef habitats (e.g., overhangs, cavities), and thus may fail to represent biomass estimates needed to assess trophic ecology and reef function. Here, we surveyed the 3D surface cover, biovolume, and biomass (i.e., ash-free dry weight) of all major benthic taxa on 12 coral reef stations on the island of Curaçao (Southern Caribbean) using structure-from-motion photogrammetry, coral point counts, in situ measurements, and elemental analysis. We then compared our 3D benthic community estimates to corresponding estimates of traditional 2D projected surface cover to explore the differences in benthic community composition using different metrics. Overall, 2D cover was dominated (52 ± 2%, mean ± SE) by non-calcifying phototrophs (macroalgae, turf algae, benthic cyanobacterial mats), but their contribution to total reef biomass was minor (3.2 ± 0.6%). In contrast, coral cover (32 ± 2%) more closely resembled coral biomass (27 ± 6%). The relative contribution of erect organisms, such as gorgonians and massive sponges, to 2D cover was twofold and 11-fold lower, respectively, than their contribution to reef biomass. Cryptic surface area (3.3 ± 0.2 m2 m−2planar reef) comprised half of the total reef substrate, rendering two thirds of coralline algae and almost all encrusting sponges (99.8%) undetected in traditional assessments. Yet, encrusting sponges dominated reef biomass (35 ± 18%). Based on our quantification of exposed and cryptic reef communities using different metrics, we suggest adjustments to current monitoring approaches and highlight ramifications for evaluating the ecological contributions of different taxa to overall reef function. To this end, our metric conversions can complement other benthic assessments to generate non-invasive estimates of the biovolume, biomass, and elemental composition (i.e., standing stocks of organic carbon and nitrogen) of Caribbean coral reef communities.