Fine-scale interplay between decline and growth determines the spatial recovery of coral communities within a reef

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As coral reefs endure increasing levels of disturbance, understanding recovery patterns of reef-building hard corals is paramount to assessing the sustainability of these ecosystems. At local scales, coral recovery slows down; however, it's unclear how this trend propagates across spatial scales due to the inherent complexity of coral dynamics. In this paper, we aimed to learn about fine scale heterogeneity of coral dynamics and explore implications for assessing coral recovery at larger spatial scales. We developed a spatio-temporal statistical model to estimate long-term trajectories of three types of corals and predict their recovery patterns at unobserved locations within a reef. Then, model predictions were used to derive metrics that capture the interplay between coral growth and decline from disturbance(s) across time, space and growth morphology. This model is developed in the context of a substantive case study at Heron Reef using a high spatio-temporal resolution dataset. Our results revealed that successful coral community recoveries took place in different habitats of Heron Reef and associated with various reasons. Branching corals recovered in the southern slope, due to fast growth in locations that were previously abundant. Plate corals flourished in the northern slope due to fast growth, despite a large decline and low baseline cover. They also recovered in the southern slope but in this case there was both a low decline and baseline cover. At Heron Reef, the recovery of coral communities followed specific conditions that were acting at a fine scale in a complex and heterogeneous way within habitat. This implies that capturing the variability of fine-scale coral dynamics is an important first step to detect accurate signals of coral recovery at larger spatial scales. The approach proposes here can be further extend to the scale of a reef and beyond enabling assessment of recovery patterns representative at management scales.

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