Predicting coral metapopulation decline in a changing thermal environment

Daniel M. Holstein, Tyler B. Smith, Ruben van Hooidonk, Claire B. Paris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Thermal stress is expected to compromise the persistence of tropical corals throughout their biogeographic ranges, making many reefs inhospitable to corals by the end of the century. We integrated models of local predictions of thermal stress throughout the coming century, coral larval dispersal, and the persistence of a coral’s metapopulation(s) in the Caribbean to investigate broad trends in metapopulation fragmentation and decline. As coral reef patches become inhospitable throughout the next century, the metapopulation of Orbicella annularis is predicted to fragment, with sub-networks centered around highly connected patches and thermal refuges. Some of these are predicted to include the reefs of Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Southern and Northern Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas. Unknown coral population demographic parameters, such as lifetime egg production and stock-recruitment rates, limit the model’s predictions; however, a sensitivity analysis demonstrates that broadscale patterns of fragmentation and metapopulation collapse before the end of the century are consistent across a range of potential parameterizations. Despite dire predictions, the model highlights the potential value in protecting and restoring coral populations at strategic locations that are highly connected and/or influential to persistence. Coordinated conservation activities that support local resilience at low coral cover have the potential to stave off metapopulation collapse for decades, buying valuable time. Thermal refuges are linchpins of metapopulation persistence during moderate thermal stress, and targeted conservation or restoration that supports connectivity between these refuges by enhancing local population growth or sexual propagation may be critically important to species conservation on coral reefs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalCoral Reefs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Bleaching
  • Connectivity
  • Coral reefs
  • Extinction
  • Metapopulations
  • Persistence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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