Changes in coral reef communities across a natural gradient in seawater pH
Ocean acidification threatens the survival of coral reef ecosystems worldwide. The negative effects of ocean acidification observed in many laboratory experiments have been seen in studies of naturally low-pH reefs, with little evidence to date for adaptation. Recently, we reported initial data suggesting that low-pH coral communities of the Palau Rock Islands appear healthy despite the extreme conditions in which they live. Here, we build on that observation with a comprehensive statistical analysis of benthic communities across Palau’s natural acidification gradient. Our analysis revealed a shift in coral community composition but no impact of acidification on coral richness, coralline algae abundance, macroalgae cover, coral calcification, or skeletal density. However, coral bioerosion increased 11-fold as pH decreased from the barrier reefs to the Rock Island bays. Indeed, a comparison of the naturally low-pH coral reef systems studied so far revealed increased bioerosion to be the only consistent feature among them, as responses varied across other indices of ecosystem health. Our results imply that whereas community responses may vary, escalation of coral reef bioerosion and acceleration of a shift from net accreting to net eroding reef structures will likely be a global signature of ocean acidification.