The combination of molecular tools, standard surveying techniques, and long-term monitoring programs are relevant to understanding environmental and ecological changes in coral reef communities. Here we studied temporal variability in cryptobenthic coral reef communities across the continental shelf in the central Red Sea spanning 6 years (three sampling periods: 2013–2019) and including the 2015 mass bleaching event. We used a combination of molecular tools (barcoding and metabarcoding) to assess communities on Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) as a standardized sampling approach. Community composition associated with ARMS for both methodologies (barcoding and metabarcoding) was statistically different across reefs (shelf position) and time periods. The partition of beta diversity showed a higher turnover and lower nestedness between pre-bleaching and post-bleaching samples than between the two post-bleaching periods, revealing a community shift from the bleaching event. However, a slight return to the pre-bleaching community composition was observed in 2019 suggesting a recovery trajectory. Given the predictions of decreasing time between bleaching events, it is concerning that cryptobenthic communities may not fully recover and communities with new characteristics will emerge. We observed a high turnover among reefs for all time periods, implying a homogenization of the cryptobiome did not occur across the cross shelf following the 2015 bleaching event. It is possible that dispersal limitations and the distinct environmental and benthic structures present across the shelf maintained the heterogeneity in communities among reefs. This study has to the best of our knowledge presented for the first time a temporal aspect into the analysis of ARMS cryptobenthic coral reef communities and encompasses a bleaching event. We show that these structures can detect cryptic changes associated with reef degradation and provides support for these being used as long-term monitoring tools.
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