A long-term study of competition and diversity of corals

Joseph H. Connell, University of California, Santa Barbara
Terence P. Hughes, James Cook University
Carden C. Wallace, Museum of Tropical Queensland
Jason E. Tanner, James Cook University
Kyle E. Harms, University of California, Santa Barbara
Alexander M. Kerr, University of California, Santa Barbara


Variations in interspecific competition, abundance, and alpha and beta diversities of corals were studied from 1962 to 2000 at different localities on the reef at Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Reductions in abundance and diversity were caused by direct damage by storms and elimination in competition. Recovery after such reductions was influenced by differences in the size of the species pools of recruits, and in contrasting competitive processes in different environments. In some places, the species pool of coral larval recruits is very low, so species richness (S) and diversity (D) never rise very high. At other sites, this species pool of recruits is larger, and S and D soon rise to high levels. After five different hurricanes destroyed corals at some sites during the 38-year period, recovery times of S and D ranged from 3 to 25 years. One reason for the variety of recovery times is that the physical environment was sometimes so drastically changed during the hurricane that a long period was required to return it to a habitat suitable for corals. Once S and D have peaked during recolonization, they may either remain at a high level, or decline. In shallow water, with no deleterious changes in environmental conditions, S and D may not decline over time, because superior competitors cannot overtop inferior competitors without exposing themselves to deleterious aerial exposure at low tide. At other times and places, S and D did decline over time. One cause of this was a gradual deterioration of the physical environment, as corals grew upward into the intertidal region and died of exposure. S and D also fell because the wave action in hurricanes either killed colonies in whole or part, or changed the drainage patterns over the reef crest, leaving corals high and dry at low tide. At deeper sites, declines in S and D were sometimes caused by heavy wave action, or by interspecific competition, as some corals overgrew or overtopped their neighbors and eliminated them.