Biodiversity of coral reef cryptobiota shuffles but does not decline under the combined stressors of ocean warming and acidification

Significance

Although climate change is expected to decimate coral reefs, the combined impacts of ocean-warming and acidification on coral reef biodiversity remains largely unmeasured. Here, we present a two-year mesocosm experiment to simulate future ocean acidification and ocean-warming to quantify the impacts on species richness, community composition, and community structure. We find that species richness is equivalent between the dual-stressor and present-day treatments but that the community shuffles, undoubtedly altering ecosystem function. However, our ability to predict the outcomes of such community shuffling remains limited due to the critical knowledge gap regarding ecological functions, life histories, and distributions for most members of the cryptobenthic community that account for the majority of the biodiversity within these iconic ecosystems.

Abstract

Ocean-warming and acidification are predicted to reduce coral reef biodiversity, but the combined effects of these stressors on overall biodiversity are largely unmeasured. Here, we examined the individual and combined effects of elevated temperature (+2 °C) and reduced pH (−0.2 units) on the biodiversity of coral reef communities that developed on standardized sampling units over a 2-y mesocosm experiment. Biodiversity and species composition were measured using amplicon sequencing libraries targeting the cytochrome oxidase I (COI) barcoding gene. Ocean-warming significantly increased species richness relative to present-day control conditions, whereas acidification significantly reduced richness. Contrary to expectations, species richness in the combined future ocean treatment with both warming and acidification was not significantly different from the present-day control treatment. Rather than the predicted collapse of biodiversity under the dual stressors, we find significant changes in the relative abundance but not in the occurrence of species, resulting in a shuffling of coral reef community structure among the highly species-rich cryptobenthic community. The ultimate outcome of altered community structure for coral reef ecosystems will depend on species-specific ecological functions and community interactions. Given that most species on coral reefs are members of the understudied cryptobenthos, holistic research on reef communities is needed to accurately predict diversity–function relationships and ecosystem responses to future climate conditions.

Timmers M. A., Jury C. P., Vicente J., Bahr K. D., Webb M. K. & Toonen R. J., 2021. Biodiversity of coral reef cryptobiota shuffles but does not decline under the combined stressors of ocean warming and acidification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(39): e2103275118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2103275118. Article.


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