Marine & Environmental Sciences Faculty Articles


0000-0001-9260-2153, 0000-0003-2468-8199

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Frontiers in Marine Science



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coral reefs, coral bleaching, structural complexity, habitat loss, Southeast Asia


Increasing incidence of severe coral bleaching events caused by climate change is contributing to extensive coral losses, shifts in species composition and widespread declines in the physical structure of coral reef ecosystems. With these ongoing changes to coral communities and the concomitant flattening of reef structural complexity, understanding the links between coral composition and structural complexity in maintaining ecosystem functions and processes is of critical importance. Here, we document the impacts of the 2016 global-scale coral bleaching event on seven coral reefs in Singapore; a heavily degraded, turbid reef system. Using a combination of field-based surveys, we examined changes in coral cover, composition and structural complexity before, during and after the 2016 bleaching event. We also quantified differential bleaching responses and mortality among coral taxa and growth forms using a bleaching response index. Elevated SSTs induced moderate to severe coral bleaching across reefs in Singapore in July 2016, but low overall coral mortality (~12% of colonies). However, we observed high bleaching prevalence and post-bleaching mortality of the three most abundant coral genera (Merulina, Pachyseris and Pectinia), all generalists, declined significantly across reefs between March and November 2016. Four months post-bleaching (November 2016), small-scale structural complexity declined across all Singaporean reefs and no moderately complex reefs remained. Importantly, reductions in structural complexity occurred across reefs with a large range of live coral cover (19–62%) and was linked to the loss of dominant coral genera with low-profile foliose-laminar growth forms which resulted in flatter, less structurally complex reefs. And while generalist coral taxa remain highly competitive within Singapore’s reef environment, they may not have the capacity to maintain structural complexity or ensure the persistence of other reef functions, even within communities with high coral cover. The widespread loss of structurally complexity on Singapore’s degraded coral reefs may further impair ecosystem functioning, potentially compromising the long-term stability of reef biodiversity and productivity.






Copyright © 2022 Bauman, Januchowski-Hartley, Teo and Todd.

This research was supported by the AXA Research Fellowship (154-000-649-507) awarded to AB, the European Regional Development Fund Sêr Cymru Fellowship (80761-SU-135) awarded to FJ-H and by the Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) under the Marine Science Research and Development Programme (MSRDP-P03).

We would like to thank Ian Chan, the Experimental Marine Ecology Laboratory, and the crew of the Dolphin Explorer for their assistance during fieldwork. Research was carried out under the Singapore National Parks Board permit (NP/ RP15-009).

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Peer Reviewed