Chemically cued suppression of coral reef resilience: Where is the tipping point?
Coral reefs worldwide are shifting from high-diversity, coral-dominated communities to low-diversity systems dominated by seaweeds. This shift can impact essential recovery processes such as larval recruitment and ecosystem resilience. Recent evidence suggests that chemical cues from certain corals attract, and from certain seaweeds suppress, recruitment of juvenile fishes, with loss of coral cover and increases in seaweed cover creating negative feedbacks that prevent reef recovery and sustain seaweed dominance. Unfortunately, the level of seaweed increase and coral decline that creates this chemically cued tipping point remains unknown, depriving managers of data-based targets to prevent damaging feedbacks. We conducted flume and field assays that suggest juvenile fishes sense and respond to cues produced by low levels of seaweed cover. However, the herbivore species we tested was more tolerant of degraded reef cues than non-herbivores, possibly providing some degree of resilience if these fishes recruit, consume macroalgae, and diminish negative cues.