University Of Tasmania

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Alternative stable states and phase shifts in coral reefs under anthropogenic stress

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 11:02 authored by Fung, T, Seymour, RM, Craig JohnsonCraig Johnson
Ecosystems with alternative stable states (ASS) may shift discontinuously from one stable state to another as environmental parameters cross a threshold. Reversal can then be difficult due to hysteresis effects. This contrasts with continuous state changes in response to changing environmental parameters, which are less difficult to reverse. Worldwide degradation of coral reefs, involving ‘‘phase shifts’’ from coral to algal dominance, highlights the pressing need to determine the likelihood of discontinuous phase shifts in coral reefs, in contrast to continuous shifts with no ASS. However, there is little evidence either for or against the existence of ASS for coral reefs. We use dynamic models to investigate the likelihood of continuous and discontinuous phase shifts in coral reefs subject to sustained environmental perturbation by fishing, nutrification, and sedimentation. Our modeling results suggest that coral reefs with or without anthropogenic stress can exhibit ASS, such that discontinuous phase shifts can occur. We also find evidence to support the view that high macroalgal growth rates and low grazing rates on macroalgae favor ASS in coral reefs. Further, our results suggest that the three stressors studied, either alone or in combination, can increase the likelihood of both continuous and discontinuous phase shifts by altering the competitive balance between corals and algae. However, in contrast to continuous phase shifts, we find that discontinuous shifts occur only in model coral reefs with parameter values near the extremes of their empirically determined ranges. This suggests that continuous shifts are more likely than discontinuous shifts in coral reefs. Our results also suggest that, for ecosystems in general, tackling multiple human stressors simultaneously maximizes resilience to phase shifts, ASS, and hysteresis, leading to improvements in ecosystem health and functioning.


Publication title











Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies


Ecological Soc Amer

Place of publication

1707 H St Nw, Ste 400, Washington, USA, Dc, 20006-3915

Rights statement

Copyright 2011 Ecological Society of America

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Assessment and management of terrestrial ecosystems