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PLOS ONE  2013 

Ecological Consequences of Sediment on High-Energy Coral Reefs

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077737

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Sediments are widely accepted as a threat to coral reefs but our understanding of their ecological impacts is limited. Evidence has suggested that benthic sediments bound within the epilithic algal matrix (EAM) suppress reef fish herbivory, a key ecological process maintaining reef resilience. An experimental combination of caging and sediment addition treatments were used to investigate the effects of sediment pulses on herbivory and EAMs and to determine whether sediment addition could trigger a positive-feedback loop, leading to deep, sediment-rich turfs. A 1-week pulsed sediment addition resulted in rapid increases in algal turf length with effects comparable to those seen in herbivore exclusion cages. Contrary to the hypothesised positive-feedback mechanism, benthic sediment loads returned to natural levels within 3 weeks, however, the EAM turfs remained almost 60% longer for at least 3 months. While reduced herbivore density is widely understood to be a major threat to reefs, we show that acute disturbances to reef sediments elicit similar ecological responses in the EAM. With reefs increasingly threatened by both reductions in herbivore biomass and altered sediment fluxes, the development of longer turfs may become more common on coral reefs.


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