Marine Ecology Progress Series
Coral reefs have long attracted attention because of their biological and economic importance, but this interest now has turned to examining the possibility of functional extirpation. Widespread declines in coral abundances have fueled the shift in motivation for studying reefs and catalyzed the proliferation of monitoring to record the changes underway. Despite appreciation of monitoring as a scientific endeavor, its primary use has continued to be the quantification of cover of coral, macroalgae, and a few other space holders. The limitations of coral cover in evaluating the consequences of changing coral abundance were highlighted decades ago. Yet neglect of the tools most appropriate for this task (demographic approaches) and continuing emphasis on a tool (coral cover) that is not ideal, indicates that these limitations are not widely appreciated. Reef monitoring therefore continues to underperform with respect to its potential, thus depriving scientists of the approaches necessary to project the fate of coral reefs and test hypotheses focused on the proximal causes of declining coral cover. We make the case that the coral reef crisis creates a need for coral demography that is more acute now than 4 decades ago. Modern demographic approaches are well suited to meet this need, but to realize their potential, consideration will need to be given to the possibility of expanding ecological monitoring of coral reefs to provide the data necessary for demographic analyses of their foundation taxon, the Scleractinia.