Fine-scale environmental specialization of reef-building corals might be limiting reef recovery in the Florida Keys.Ecology. 2015 Dec; 96(12):3197-212.E
Despite decades of monitoring global reef decline, we are still largely unable to explain patterns of reef deterioration at local scales, which precludes the development of effective management strategies. Offshore reefs of the Florida Keys, USA, experience milder temperatures and lower nutrient loads in comparison to inshore reefs yet remain considerably more degraded than nearshore patch reefs. A year-long reciprocal transplant experiment of the mustard hill coral (Porites astreoides) involving four source and eight transplant locations reveals that corals adapt and/or acclimatize to their local habitat on a < 10-km scale. Surprisingly, transplantation to putatively similar environmental types (e.g., offshore corals moved to a novel offshore site, or along-shore transplantation) resulted in greater reductions in fitness proxies, such as coral growth, than cross-channel transplantation between inshore and offshore reefs. The only abiotic factor showing significantly greater differences between along-shore sites was daily temperature range extremes (rather than the absolute high or low temperatures reached), providing a possible explanation for this pattern. Offshore-origin corals exhibited significant growth reductions at sites with greater daily temperature ranges, which explained up to 39% of the variation in their mass gain. In contrast, daily temperature range explained at most 9% of growth variation in inshore-origin corals, suggesting that inshore corals are more tolerant of high-frequency temperature fluctuations. Finally, corals incur trade-offs when specializing to their native reef. Across reef locations the coefficient of selection against coral transplants was 0.07 ± 0.02 (mean ± SE). This selection against immigrants could hinder the ability of corals to recolonize devastated reefs, whether through assisted migration efforts or natural recruitment events, providing a unifying explanation for observed patterns of coral decline in this reef system.