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PNAS paper out: Tropical dead zones and mass mortalities on coral reefs.

News from Apr 07, 2017

Andrew H. Altieri, Seamus B. Harrison, Janina Seemann, Rachel Collin, Robert J. Diaz and Nancy Knowlton

Contributed by Nancy Knowlton, January 30, 2017 (sent for review December 11, 2015; reviewed by Nancy N. Rabalais and Robert S. Steneck)


Oxygen-starved coastal waters are rapidly increasing in prevalence worldwide. However, little is known about the impacts of these “dead zones” in tropical ecosystems or their potential threat to coral reefs. We document the deleterious effects of such an anoxic event on coral habitat and biodiversity, and show that the risk of dead-zone events to reefs worldwide likely has been seriously underestimated. Awareness of, and research on, reef hypoxia is needed to address the threat posed by dead zones to coral reefs.


Degradation of coastal water quality in the form of low dissolved oxygen levels (hypoxia) can harm biodiversity, ecosystem function, and human wellbeing. Extreme hypoxic conditions along the coast, leading to what are often referred to as “dead zones,” are known primarily from temperate regions. However, little is known about the potential threat of hypoxia in the tropics, even though the known risk factors, including eutrophication and elevated temperatures, are common. Here we document an unprecedented hypoxic event on the Caribbean coast of Panama and assess the risk of dead zones to coral reefs worldwide. The event caused coral bleaching and massive mortality of corals and other reef-associated organisms, but observed shifts in community structure combined with laboratory experiments revealed that not all coral species are equally sensitive to hypoxia. Analyses of global databases showed that coral reefs are associated with more than half of the known tropical dead zones worldwide, with >10% of all coral reefs at elevated risk for hypoxia based on local and global risk factors. Hypoxic events in the tropics and associated mortality events have likely been underreported, perhaps by an order of magnitude, because of the lack of local scientific capacity for their detection. Monitoring and management plans for coral reef resilience should incorporate the growing threat of coastal hypoxia and include support for increased detection and research capacity.

Read More:
pnas vol. 114 no. 14 > Andrew H. Altieri,  2017:3660–3665


Dr. Janina Seemann
MarineGEO Postdoctoral Fellow | Marine Biologist

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Bocas del Toro, Panama

+507 21 2 8587 | seemannj@si.edu

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