What makes a species common? No evidence of density-dependent recruitment or mortality of the sea urchin Diadema antillarum after the 1983-1984 mass mortality.
A potential consequence of individuals compensating for density-dependent processes is that rare or infrequent events can produce profound and long-term shifts in species abundance. In 1983-1984 a mass mortality event reduced the numbers of the abundant sea urchin Diadema antillarum by 95-99 % throughout the Caribbean and western Atlantic. Following this event, the abundance of macroalgae increased and the few surviving D. antillarum responded by increasing in body size and fecundity. These initial observations suggested that populations of D. antillarum could recover rapidly following release from food limitation. In contrast, published studies of field manipulations indicate that this species had traits making it resistant to density-dependent effects on offspring production and adult mortality; this evidence raises the possibility that density-independent processes might keep populations at a diminished level. Decadal-scale (1983-2011) monitoring of recruitment, mortality, population density and size structure of D. antillarum from St John, US Virgin Islands, indicates that population density has remained relatively stable and more than an order of magnitude lower than that before the mortality event of 1983-1984. We detected no evidence of density-dependent mortality or recruitment since this mortality event. In this location, model estimates of equilibrium population density, assuming density-independent processes and based on parameters generated over the first decade following the mortality event, accurately predict the low population density 20 years later (2011). We find no evidence to support the notion that this historically dominant species will rebound from this temporally brief, but spatially widespread, perturbation.