The ecological importance of habitat complexity to the Caribbean coral reef herbivore Diadema antillarum: three lines of evidence

Bodmer, M. D. V.; Wheeler, P. M.; Anand, P.; Cameron, S. E.; Hintikka, Sanni; Cai, W.; Borcsok, A. O. and Exton, D. A. (2021). The ecological importance of habitat complexity to the Caribbean coral reef herbivore Diadema antillarum: three lines of evidence. Scientific reports, 11, article no. 9382.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-87232-9

Abstract

When Caribbean long-spined sea urchins, Diadema antillarum, are stable at high population densities, their grazing facilitates scleractinian coral dominance. Today, populations remain suppressed after a mass mortality in 1983–1984 caused a loss of their ecosystem functions, and led to widespread declines in ecosystem health. This study provides three lines of evidence to support the assertion that a lack of habitat complexity on Caribbean coral reefs contributes to their recovery failure. Firstly, we extracted fractal dimension (D) measurements, used as a proxy for habitat complexity, from 3D models to demonstrate that urchins preferentially inhabit areas of above average complexity at ecologically relevant spatial scales. Secondly, controlled behaviour experiments showed that an energetically expensive predator avoidance behaviour is reduced by 52% in complex habitats, potentially enabling increased resource allocation to reproduction. Thirdly, we deployed a network of simple and cost-effective artificial structures on a heavily degraded reef system in Honduras. Over a 24-month period the adult D. antillarum population around the artificial reefs increased by 320% from 0.05 ± 0.01 to 0.21 ± 0.04 m−2 and the juvenile D. antillarum population increased by 750% from 0.08 ± 0.02 to 0.68 ± 0.07 m−2. This study emphasises the important role of habitat structure in the ecology of D. antillarum and as a barrier to its widespread recovery.

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