Scale-dependent spatial patterns in benthic communities around a tropical island seascape

Understanding and predicting patterns of spatial organization across ecological communities is central to the field of landscape ecology, and a similar line of inquiry has begun to evolve sub-tidally among seascape ecologists. Much of our current understanding of the processes driving marine community patterns, particularly in the tropics, has come from small-scale, spatially-discrete data that are often not representative of the broader seascape. Here we expand the spatial extent of seascape ecology studies and combine spatially-expansive in situ digital imagery, oceanographic measurements, spatial statistics, and predictive modeling to test whether predictable patterns emerge between coral reef benthic competitors across scales in response to intra-island gradients in physical drivers. We do this around the entire circumference of a remote, uninhabited island in the central Pacific (Jarvis Island) that lacks the confounding effects of direct human impacts. We show, for the first time, that competing benthic groups demonstrate predictable scaling patterns of organization, with positive autocorrelation in the cover of each group at scales < ~ 1 km. Moreover, we show how gradients in subsurface temperature and surface wave power drive spatially-abrupt transition points in group dominance, explaining 48–84% of the overall variation in benthic cover around the island. Along the western coast, we documented ten times more sub-surface cooling-hours than any other part of the coastline, with events typically resulting in a drop of 1–4°C over a period of < 5 h. These high frequency temperature fluctuations are indicative of upwelling induced by internal waves and here result in localized nitrogen enrichment (NO2 + NO3) that promotes hard coral dominance around 44% of the island’s perimeter. Our findings show that, in the absence of confounding direct human impacts, the spatial organization of coral reef benthic competitors are predictable and somewhat bounded across the seascape by concurrent gradients in physical drivers.

Keywords: Coral reefs, Marine, Spatial scaling, System dynamics

Citation: Aston, E.A., G.J. Williams, J.A. Green, A.J. Davies, L.M. Wedding, J.M. Gove, J.-B. Jouffray, T. T. Jones, and J. Clark. (2018). Ecography 42: 1–13.

Scale-dependent spatial patterns in benthic communities around a tropical island seascape

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