Coral assemblages on Caribbean reefs have largely been considered to be biogeographically homogeneous at a regional scale. We reassess this in three taxa (corals, sponges and octocorals) using three community attributes with increasing levels of information (species richness, composition and relative abundance) across hierarchical spatial scales, and identify the key environmental drivers associated with this variation.
We assessed reefs along 546 transects positioned within the same forereef habitat (Orbicella reef) in 11 countries, using a consistent methodology and surveyors. Spatial variability in richness, composition and relative abundance was assessed at four hierarchical spatial scales – transects (metres), sites (kilometres), areas (tens of kilometres) and regions (hundreds of kilometres) – using permutational multivariate analysis of variance (PERMANOVA). The relevance of contemporary environmental factors in explaining the observed spatial patterns was also assessed using PERMANOVA.
Consistent with previous studies, species richness of coral assemblages, commonly the focus of biogeographical studies, showed little variance at large spatial scales. In contrast, species composition and relative abundance showed significant variability at regional scales. Coral, sponge and octocoral assemblages each varied independently across spatial scales. Rugosity and wave exposure were key drivers of the composition and relative abundance of coral and octocoral assemblages.
Caribbean reef assemblages exhibit considerable biogeographical variability at broad spatial scales (hundreds of kilometres) when more responsive community attributes were used. However, the high degree of variability within sites (kilometres) highlights the relevance of local ecological drivers such as rugosity and wave exposure in structuring assemblages. The high levels of within-site variability that is not explained by environmental variables may suggest a previously unrealized contribution of anthropogenic disturbance operating at local scales throughout the region.