Stability of Caribbean coral communities quantified by long-term monitoring and autoregression models

Tropical coral reefs exemplify ecosystems imperiled by environmental change. Anticipating the future of reef ecosystems requires understanding how scleractinian corals respond to the multiple environmental disturbances that threaten their survival. We analyzed the stability of coral reefs at three habitats at different depths along the south shore of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, using multivariate autoregression (MAR) models and two decades of monitoring data. We quantified several measures of ecosystem stability, including the magnitude of typical stochastic fluctuations, the rate of recovery following disturbance, and the sensitivity of coral cover to hurricanes and elevated sea temperature. Our results show that, even within a ~4 km shore, coral communities in different habitats display different stability properties, and that the stability of each habitat corresponds with the habitat's known synecology. Two Orbicella-dominated habitats are less prone to annual stochastic fluctuations than coral communities in shallower water, but they recover slowly from disturbance, and one habitat has suffered recent losses in scleractinian cover that will not be quickly reversed. In contrast, a shallower, low-coral-cover habitat is subject to greater stochastic fluctuations, but rebounds more quickly from disturbance and is more robust to hurricanes and seawater warming. In some sense, the shallower community is more stable, although the stability arguably arises from having little coral cover left. Our results sharpen understanding of recent changes in coral communities at these habitats, provide a more detailed understanding of how these habitats may change in future environments, and illustrate how MAR models can be used to assess stability of communities founded upon long-lived species.