The primary anthropogenic threats facing coral reefs are coral bleaching and ocean acidification. Although Montastraea cavernosa is not as vulnerable to bleaching as some other species but it is possible that the frequency of bleaching events will increase as sea temperatures continue to rise. When sea temperatures are higher than normal the coral can respond to this stress by expelling its symbiotic zooxanthellae, its usual energy source. The expulsion of zooxanthellae leaves the coral with a white, bleached appearance and if the bleaching is extensive or prolonged it can be fatal.
Ocean acidification is a result of the rising levels of atmospheric CO2 which means more carbon dioxide is dissolving into the ocean and lowering the pH of the water. This presents a problem to organisms that have calcium carbonate in their shells and skeletons as it makes the structures more brittle and slows growth. Current CO2 levels are approximately 387 ppm but if they are allowed to rise to 450ppm, which is predicted to happen in 20 to 30 years time, the growth of corals will be severely impacted.
Montastraea cavernosa is particularly susceptible to black band disease, white plague type I and II and dark spots. Black band disease, which is visible as black bands on coral, is caused by a collection of different types of bacteria which results in the death of coral tissue. White plague disease was also found to be caused by a bacterial pathogen and this disease is indentified by the distinct white line that forms between healthy and diseased tissue. The cause of dark spots is not yet understood but is characterised by irregular shaped dark spots on healthy tissue.
Corals are also at threat from human activities. Some threats are the same globally such as pollution, over-fishing and destruction of the reef due to dynamite fishing or boat damage. Over-fishing is a common problem because many coastal communities rely on fishing as a source of protein and income. However removal of herbivorous reef fish can lead to a phase shift where algae become the dominant species on the reef to the detriment of coral.
Deforestation is an additional threat to Montastraea cavernosa populations on the coast of Brazil and Costa Rica. The removal of terrestrial forests increases sediment runs offs from the land onto the reef, via rivers and streams, reducing light availability and covering coral in a blanket of sediment that can lead to suffocation. Mangroves and sea grasses play a crucial function in bio-stabilising sediments and preventing reefs being smothered in debris. The removal of either of these vital habitats results in the greater deposition of sediment and silt onto coral reefs.
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Distribution map based on data provided by the IUCN Spatial Data Collection.
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