The persistence of natural metapopulations may depend on subpopulations that exist at the edges of species ranges, removed from anthropogenic stress. Mesophotic coral ecosystems (30-150 m) are buffered from disturbance by depth and distance, and are potentially massive reservoirs of coral diversity and fecundity; yet we know little about the reproductive capabilities of their constituent species and the potential for these marginal environments to influence patterns of coral reef persistence. We investigated the reproductive performance of the threatened depth-generalist coral Orbicella faveolata over the extent of its vertical range to assess mesophotic contributions to regional larval pools. Over equal habitat area, mesophotic coral populations were found to produce over an order of magnitude more eggs than nearby shallow populations. Positive changes with depth in both population abundance and polyp fecundity contributed to this discrepancy. Relative larval pool contributions of deeper living corals will likely increase as shallow habitats further degrade due to climate change and local habitat degradation. This is a compelling example of the potential for marginal habitat to be critical to metapopulation persistence as reproductive refugia.
Scleractinia (Hard Corals)
US Virgin Islands
SCUBA (open-circuit or unspecified)