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Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2019

Form and function of tropical macroalgal reefs in the Anthropocene

Fulton, Christopher J.; Abesamis, Rene A.; Berkstrom, Charlotte; Depczynski, Martial; Graham, Nicholas A. J.; Holmes, Thomas H.; Kulbicki, Michel; Noble, Mae M.; Radford, Ben T.; Tano, Stina; Tinkler, Paul; Wernberg, Thomas; Wilson, Shaun K.


Tropical reefs have been subjected to a range of anthropogenic pressures such as global climate change, overfishing and eutrophication that have raised questions about the prominence of macroalgae on tropical reefs, whether they pose a threat to biodiversity, and how they may influence the function of tropical marine ecosystems. We synthesise current understanding of the structure and function of tropical macroalgal reefs and how they may support various ecosystem goods and services. We then forecast how key stressors may alter the role of macroalgal reefs in tropical seascapes of the Anthropocene. High levels of primary productivity from tropical canopy macroalgae, which rivals that of other key producers (e.g., corals and turf algae), can be widely dispersed across tropical seascapes to provide a boost of secondary productivity in a range of biomes that include coral reefs, and support periodic harvests of macroalgal biomass for industrial and agricultural uses. Complex macroalgal reefs that comprise a mixture of canopy and understorey taxa can also provide key habitats for a diverse community of epifauna, as well as juvenile and adult fishes that are the basis for important tropical fisheries. Key macroalgal taxa (e.g., Sargassum) that form complex macroalgal reefs are likely to be sensitive to future climate change. Increases in maximum sea temperature, in particular, could depress biomass production and/or drive phenological shifts in canopy formation that will affect their capacity to support tropical marine ecosystems. Macroalgal reefs can support a suite of tropical marine ecosystem functions when embedded within an interconnected mosaic of habitat types. Habitat connectivity is, therefore, essential if we are to maintain tropical marine biodiversity alongside key ecosystem goods and services. Consequently, complex macroalgal reefs should be treated as a key ecological asset in strategies for the conservation and management of diverse tropical seascapes. A plain language summary is available for this article.


nursery; productivity; Sargassum; seascape; seasonality; spatial subsidy

Published in

Functional Ecology
2019, Volume: 33, number: 6, pages: 989-999
Publisher: WILEY

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