Evaluating the causal basis of ecological success within the scleractinia: an integral projection model approach
Many tropical corals have declined in abundance in the last few decades, and evaluating the causal basis of these losses is critical to understanding how coral reefs will change in response to ongoing environmental challenges. Motivated by the likelihood that marine environments will become increasingly unfavorable for coral growth as they warm and become more acidic (i.e., ocean acidification), it is reasonable to evaluate whether specific phenotypic traits of the coral holobiont are associated with ecological success (or failure) under varying environmental conditions including those that are adverse to survival. Initially, we asked whether it was possible to identify corals that are resistant or sensitive to such conditions by compiling quantitative measures of their phenotypic traits determined through empirical studies, but we found only weak phenotypic discrimination between ecological winners and losers, or among taxa. To reconcile this outcome with ecological evidence demonstrating that coral taxa are functionally unequal, we looked beyond the notion that phenotypic homogeneity arose through limitations of empirical data. Instead, we examined the validity of contemporary means of categorizing corals based on ecological success. As an alternative means to distinguish among functional groups of corals, we present a demographic approach using integral projection models (IPMs) that link organismal performance to demographic outcomes, such as the rates of population growth and responses to environmental stress. We describe how IPMs can be applied to corals so that future research can evaluate within a quantitative framework the extent to which changes in physiological performance influence the demographic underpinnings of ecological performance.