Multiple natural and anthropogenic stressors impact coral reefs across the globe leading to declines of coral populations, but the relative importance of different stressors and the ways they interact remain poorly understood. Because coral reefs exist in environments commonly impacted by multiple stressors simultaneously, understanding their interactions is of particular importance. To evaluate the role of multiple stressors we experimentally manipulated three stressors (herbivore abundance, nutrient supply, and sediment loading) in plots on a natural reef in the Gulf of Panamá in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Monitoring of the benthic community (coral, macroalgae, algal turf, and crustose coralline algae) showed complex responses with all three stressors impacting the community, but at different times, in different combinations, and with varying effects on different community members. Reduction of top–down control in combination with sediment addition had the strongest effect on the community, and led to approximately three times greater algal biomass. Coral cover was reduced in all experimental units with a negative effect of nutrients over time and a synergistic interaction between herbivore exclosures and sediment addition. In contrast, nutrient and sediment additions interacted antagonistically in their impacts on crustose coralline algae and turf algae so that in combination the treatments limited each other’s effects. Interactions between stressors and temporal variability indicated that, while each stressor had the potential to impact community structure, their combinations and the broader environmental conditions under which they acted strongly influenced their specific effects. Thus, it is critical to evaluate the effects of stressors on community dynamics not only independently but also under different combinations or environmental conditions to understand how those effects will be played out in more realistic scenarios.
- Coral reef
- Multiple stressors