Environmental variability indicates a climate-adaptive center under threat in northern Mozambique coral reefs

Authors McClanahan, T.R.; Muthiga, N.A.
Year of Publication 2017
Type of Publication Journal Article
Journal Ecosphere
Volume 8
Open Access Yes


A priority for modern conservation is finding and managing regions with environmental and biodiversity portfolio characteristics that will promote adaptation and the persistence of species during times of rapid climate change. The latitudinal edges of high-diversity biomes are likely to provide a mixture of environmental gradients and biological diversity that meet the portfolio criteria needed for adaptive systems. Northern Mozambique and the Quirimbas Islands represent the edge of a coral reef diversity center with limited potential to expand because of geologic and oceanographic limits on the southern edges. This region does, however, have the potential to be its own discrete adaptive center if it contains climate refugia and there are environmental gradients that promote acclimatization, ecological reorganization, and natural selection. Consequently, to evaluate this potential we tested for strong regional environmental spatial heterogeneity that might indicate a climate-adaptive center. Additionally, we evaluated human influences and environmental and demographic data on finfish, coral, and sea urchins in 66 reefs across ~4° of latitude to evaluate ecological changes and human threats. A number of clear gradients in environmental and human influences were observed. For example, temperature increased and became more centralized and right-skewed, while water quality decreased to the south. Coral communities susceptible to thermal stress were found in the north where dispersed temperatures indicated a location with either tolerance to or refugium from recent thermal disturbances. Nevertheless, high coral diversity was found in southern deep-water channels. Further, spatial patterns for corals and fish differed indicating complex geographic-fishing-biodiversity gradients. Consequently, environmental conditions for an adaptive portfolio exist and include refugia for preserving climate-sensitive and for numbers of coral taxa. Fishing and urban threats were observable as reduced fish biomass, diversity, and body sizes but higher biomass of sea urchins. We observed that many remote and protected areas had fish biomass values lower than expected or near maximum sustainable yields. This indicates low compliance and widespread migratory fishing, which is reducing fish diversity below maximum levels. Recommendations to sustain this adaptive center are to maintain fish biomass >500 kg/ha by increasing fisheries restrictions and compliance.