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1. Ecological communities are subjected to multiple anthropogenic stressors at both global and local scales that are increasing in number and magnitude. Stressors can interact in complex ways and are classified as additive, synergistic or antagonistic; the nature of the interaction is key to predicting changes and understanding community resilience. Coral reefs are among the most impacted communities and have shifted from coral to algal-dominated states, and overfishing, nutrient enrichment and sedimentation are local stressors that often cooccur and may support degraded algal states. Short algal turfs are abundant benthic space holders on healthy reefs that may be pushed by local stressors to long algal turfs, a more degraded state that may prevent recovery to coral dominance.

2. We conducted a fully crossed three-factor field experimenton short algalturf communities manipulating herbivory pressure (+/−cages), nutrients (+/−fertilizer) and sediments (natural accumulation/removal). We applied stressors for 16 days, removed them and monitored turf height during and after manipulations.

3. We found that significant pair-wise interactions between all stressors pushed the community towards a degraded state with longer algal turfs. All three types of interactions (additive, synergistic and antagonistic) were common and occurred in equal frequency, suggesting more investigations into all types are needed to accurately predict community responses to multiple stressors. For example, when herbivores were present, nutrients and sediments interacted additively, while in the absence of herbivores, nutrients and sediments interacted synergistically. All inter-actions broke down following termination of experimental manipulations and all effects were undetectable after 49 days, indicating that this reef may be resilient, at least when stressors are applied on a short time-scale.

4. Synthesis. Because management of local stressors is often more tractable than global stressors, local management has been proposed as a means to offset global stressors. However, ecological communities often experience multiple local stressors simultaneously, and interactions between stressors, including synergisms and antagonisms, may be the source of nonlinear shifts in communities or “ecological surprises.” The majority of interactions in our study were both strong and nonlinear, and we suggest that, if pervasive across systems, nonlinear interactions may drive the recent global increase in “ecological surprises.”

Recommended Citation

Fong, CR, Bittick, SJ, Fong, P. Simultaneous synergist, antagonistic and additive interactions between multiple local stressors all degrade algal turf communities on coral reefs. J Ecol. 2018; 106: 1390– 1400.

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