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Borneo coral reefs subject to high sediment loads show evidence of resilience to various environmental stressors

News from Aug 14, 2019

Nicola Browne1,2, Christina Braoun3, Jennifer McIlwain1,2, Ramasamy Nagarajan4, Jens Zinke1,2,3,5,6

1Molecular and Life Sciences, Curtin University, Perth, WA, Australia
2Curtin Malaysia Research Institute, Curtin University, Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia
3Department of Biology, Chemistry and Pharmacy, Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany
4Department of Applied Geology, Curtin University, Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia
5School of Geography, Geology and Environment, Centre for Palaeobiology, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
6Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, WA, Australia


For reefs in South East Asia the synergistic effects of rapid land development, insufficient environmental policies and a lack of enforcement has led to poor water quality and compromised coral health from increased sediment and pollution. Those inshore turbid coral reefs, subject to significant sediment inputs, may also inherit some resilience to the effects of thermal stress and coral bleaching. We studied the inshore turbid reefs near Miri, in northwest Borneo through a comprehensive assessment of coral cover and health in addition to quantifying sediment-related parameters. Although Miri’s Reefs had comparatively low coral species diversity, dominated by massive and encrusting forms of Diploastrea, Porites, Montipora, Favites, Dipsastrea and Pachyseris, they were characterized by a healthy cover ranging from 22 to 39%. We found a strong inshore to offshore gradient in hard coral cover, diversity and community composition as a direct result of spatial differences in sediment at distances <10 km. As well as distance to shore, we included other environmental variables like reef depth and sediment trap accumulation and particle size that explained 62.5% of variation in benthic composition among sites. Miri’s reefs showed little evidence of coral disease and relatively low prevalence of compromised health signs including bleaching (6.7%), bioerosion (6.6%), pigmentation response (2.2%), scars (1.1%) and excessive mucus production (0.5%). Tagged colonies of Diploastrea and Pachyseris suffering partial bleaching in 2016 had fully (90–100%) recovered the following year. There were, however, seasonal differences in bioerosion rates, which increased five-fold after the 2017 wet season. Differences in measures of coral physiology, like that of symbiont density and chlorophyll a for Montipora, Pachyseris and Acropora, were not detected among sites. We conclude that Miri’s reefs may be in a temporally stable state given minimal recently dead coral and a limited decline in coral cover over the last two decades. This study provides further evidence that turbid coral reefs exposed to seasonally elevated sediment loads can exhibit relatively high coral cover and be resilient to disease and elevated sea surface temperatures.

Browne N, Braoun C, McIlwain J, Nagarajan R, Zinke J. 2019. Borneo coral reefs subject to high sediment loads show evidence of resilience to various environmental stressors. PeerJ 7:e7382 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.7382


Dr. Jens Zinke

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