Scleractinian corals often exhibit high levels of morphological plasticity, which is potentially important in enabling individual species to occupy benthic spaces across a wide range of environmental gradients. This study tested for differences in the three-dimensional (3D) geometry of three branching corals, Acropora nasuta
spp. and Stylophora pistillata
among inner-, mid- and outer-shelf reefs in the central Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Important attributes of coral morphology (e.g., surface area to volume ratio) were expected to vary linearly across the shelf in accordance with marked gradients in environmental conditions, but instead, we detected non-linear trends in the colony structure of A. nasuta
spp. The surface area to volume ratio of both A. nasuta
spp. was highest at mid-shelf locations, (reflecting higher colony complexity) and was significantly lower at both inner-shelf and outer-shelf reefs. The branching structure of these corals was also far more tightly packed at inner-shelf and outer-shelf reefs, compared to mid-shelf reefs. Apparent declines in complexity and inter-branch spacing at inner and outer-shelf reefs (compared to conspecifics from mid-shelf reefs) may reflect changes driven by gradients of sedimentation and hydrodynamics. The generality and explanations of observed patterns warrant further investigation, which is very feasible using the 3D-photogrammetry techniques used in this study.
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