Rapid northward spread of a zooxanthellate coral enhanced by artificial structures and sea warming in the Western Mediterranean

Serrano, E.; Coma, R.; Ribes, M.; Weitzmann, B.; García, M.; Ballesteros, E.
The hermatypic coral Oculina patagonica can drive a compositional shift in shallow water benthic marine communities in the northwestern Mediterranean. Here, we analyze a long-term, large-scale observational dataset to characterize the dynamics of the species’ recent northward range shift along the coast of Catalonia and examine the main factors that could have influenced this spread. The variation in the distributional range of Oculina patagonica was examined by monitoring 223 locations including natural and artificial habitats along .400 km of coastline over the last 19 years (1992–2010). Abundance of the species increased from being present in one location in 1992 to occur on 19% of the locations in 2010, and exhibited an acceleration of its spreading over time driven by the join action of neighborhood and long-distance dispersal. However, the pattern of spread diverged between artificial and natural habitats. A short lag phase and a high slope on the exponential phase characterized the temporal pattern of spread on artificial habitats in contrast to that observed on natural ones. Northward expansion has occurred at the fastest rate (22 km year21) reported for a coral species thus far, which is sufficiently fast to cope with certain climate warming predictions. The pattern of spread suggests that this process is mediated by the interplay of (i) the availability of open space provided by artificial habitats, (ii) the seawater temperature increase with the subsequent extension of the growth period, and (iii) the particular biological features of O. patagonica (current high growth rates, early reproduction, and survival to low temperature and in polluted areas). These results are indicative of an ongoing fundamental modification of temperate shallow water assemblages, which is consistent with the predictions indicating that the Mediterranean Sea is one of the most sensitive regions to global change.
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