Building your own mountain: the effects, limits, and drawbacks of cold-water coral ecosystem engineering

Anna Selma Van Der Kaaden*, Sandra R. Maier, Siluo Chen, Laurence H. De Clippele, Evert De Froe, Theo Gerkema, Johan Van De Koppel, Furu Mienis, Christian Mohn, Max Rietkerk, Karline Soetaert, Dick Van Oevelen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Framework-forming cold-water corals (CWCs) are ecosystem engineers that build mounds in the deep sea that can be up to several hundred metres high. The effect of the presence of cold-water coral mounds on their surroundings is typically difficult to separate from environmental factors that are not affected by the mounds. We investigated the environmental control on and the importance of ecosystem engineering for cold-water coral reefs using annotated video transect data, spatial variables (MEMs), and hydrodynamic model outputs in a redundancy analysis and with variance partitioning. Using available hydrodynamic simulations with cold-water coral mounds and simulations where the mounds were artificially removed, we investigated the effect of coral mound ecosystem engineering on the spatial configuration of reef habitat and discriminated which environmental factors are and which are not affected by the mounds. We find that downward velocities in winter, related to non-engineered environmental factors, e.g. deep winter mixing and dense-water cascading, cause substantial differences in reef cover at the broadest spatial scale (20-30km). Such hydrodynamic processes that stimulate the food supply towards the corals in winter seem more important for the reefs than cold-water coral mound engineering or similar hydrodynamic processes in summer. While the ecosystem-engineering effect of cold-water corals is frequently discussed, our results also highlight the importance of non-engineered environmental processes. We further find that, due to the interaction between the coral mound and the water flow, different hydrodynamic zones are found on coral mounds that likely determine the typical benthic zonations of coral rubble at the mound foot, the dead coral framework on the mound flanks, and the living corals near the summit. Moreover, we suggest that a so-called Massenerhebung effect (well known for terrestrial mountains) exists, meaning that benthic zonation depends on the location of the mound rather than on the height above the seafloor or water depth. Our finding that ecosystem engineering determines the configuration of benthic habitats on cold-water coral mounds implies that cold-water corals cannot grow at deeper depths on the mounds to avoid the adverse effects of climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)973-992
Number of pages20
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 22 Feb 2024


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