No evidence for tropicalization of coral assemblages in a subtropical climate change hot spot

Toni L. Mizerek, Joshua S. Madin, Francesca Benzoni, Danwei Huang, Osmar J. Luiz, Hanaka Mera, Sebastian Schmidt-Roach, Stephen D.A. Smith, Brigitte Sommer, Andrew H. Baird

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Climate change is causing the distribution and abundance of many organisms to change. In particular, organisms typical of the tropics are increasing in abundance in many subtropical regions, a process known as tropicalization. Here, we examine changes in coral abundance and assemblage structure in the Solitary Islands Marine Park (SIMP), over a 23-year period between 1990 and 2013–14. Total coral cover decreased at all six islands sampled with a concomitant decline in total coral cover at the regional scale (i.e. between sampling occasions). When coral taxa were classified as either cosmopolitan or subtropical, cosmopolitan corals decreased in cover at the regional scale. In contrast, subtropical coral cover did not change at the regional scale because large increases in cover at some islands, such as North Solitary Island, were matched by decreases at other islands. Of 16 common coral taxa examined at the regional level, one declined and two increased in cover with no change in the remaining 13 taxa. In particular, there was no increase in the abundance of coral taxa typically associated with tropical reefs. Similarly, multivariate analyses of coral assemblage structure using these 16 common taxa indicated changes in two of the six island assemblages but, again, provided no evidence for tropicalization. Modelling suggested very low probabilities of larval dispersal from the southern Great Barrier Reef to the SIMP suggesting that limited connectivity with tropical coral populations is one possible cause of the lack of tropicalization in the coral assemblages. We therefore conclude that, despite significant increases in mean sea surface temperature over the last few decades, there has been no tropicalization of the coral fauna in the SIMP. Furthermore, the small proportional reduction in total coral cover, despite the occasional incidence of coral bleaching, coral disease outbreaks and a number of large storms, suggest that the reefs of the SIMP were in reasonably good health at the time of the final survey in 2014. Our results suggest that factors other than temperature, in particular, a lack of dispersal, are limiting the expansion of tropical corals along the east coast of Australia.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalCoral Reefs
StatePublished - Aug 19 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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