Associational refuges among corals mediate impacts of a crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci outbreak.
Interactions among coral populations can moderate the impact of coral predator outbreaks, enhancing community resilience and recovery. This study used predator-exclusion cages and neighbour removals in a field experiment to test how indirect interactions between populations of three coral taxa, Acropora, Pocillopora, and Porites, influenced their survival during an outbreak of the crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci, in Moorea, French Polynesia. High densities of corals enhanced survival by generating associational refuges: physical structures that impeded Acanthaster and protected corals, and by simple density-dependent prey dilution that reduced predation rates. Acanthaster showed feeding preferences, resulting in varying intensities of predation on corals, which (1) influenced the type and strength of the associational refuge among corals and (2) resulted in significant loss of the competitive dominants to the benefit of the competitive inferiors. The result was a set of indirect positive interactions (IPIs) that prevented Acanthaster from eradicating Acropora and may have enhanced Porites, a relatively weak competitor among corals. IPIs probably play a key role in many ecosystems, especially in coral reefs in which corals act as engineer species, to reduce impacts of perturbations and enhance community resilience. This study illustrates the importance of IPIs in community regulation with a new conceptual model.