Warming Alters the Relationship Between Benthic Cover and Herbivores on Hawaiian Reefs

Shawna A. Foo, Christopher H. Teague, Gregory P. Asner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Increases in sea surface temperature impact animal metabolism, which in turn could influence benthic structure and resulting algal-coral balance. We utilized a long-term coral reef dataset from the west coast of Hawai‘i Island to investigate impacts of annual positive and negative sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTA) on benthic cover [algal turf, macroalgae, crustose coralline algae (CCA), and coral], herbivore density (sea urchins, grazers, browsers, and scrapers) and the relationship between benthic cover and herbivore density. Results showed significantly lower coral cover, but higher CCA cover with positive SSTA. Additionally, the density of sea urchins, grazers and browsers increased with increasing SSTA. Warming disrupted the normal relationship between herbivores and benthic cover on reefs, particularly for grazers where higher densities were coupled with lower algal turf cover only during negative SSTA. The direction of the relationship between benthic cover and herbivore type changed with positive SSTA, where increased algal turf cover was associated with increased herbivore density. Here, herbivores are likely responding accordingly to increases in food availability due to increased metabolism under warming. Despite herbivore populations increasing in density over the past two decades, algal turf cover remains on an upward trajectory. These results indicate that warming can alter herbivore-algal dynamics, where greater herbivore densities may be required to cause a reduction in algal turf cover. Protection of herbivores in addition to reducing nutrient input onto reefs will be essential in driving a reduction in algal turf cover on Hawaiian reefs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number787314
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
StatePublished - Feb 22 2022


  • algal turf cover
  • coral reef
  • herbivory
  • macroalgae
  • resilience
  • sea surface temperature anomaly

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Ocean Engineering


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