Severe heat stress resulted in high coral mortality on Maldivian reefs following the 2015–2016 El Niño event

Pia Bessell-Browne, Hannah E. Epstein, Nora Hall, Patrick Buerger, Kathryn Berry

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Coral cover worldwide has been declining due to heat stress caused by climate change. Here we report the impacts of the 2015–2016 El Niño mass coral bleaching event on the coral cover of reefs located on central and northern atolls of the Maldives. We surveyed six reef sites in the Alifu Alifu (Ari) and Baa (South Maalhosmadulu) Atolls using replicate 20 m benthic photo transects at two depths per reef site. Live and recently dead coral cover identified from images differed between reef sites and depth. Recently dead corals on average made up 33% of the coral assemblage at shallow sites and 24% at deep sites. This mortality was significantly lower in massive corals than in branching corals, reaching an average of only 6% compared to 41%, respectively. The best predictors of live coral cover were depth and morphology, with a greater percentage of live coral at deep sites and in massive corals. The same predictors best described the prevalence of recently dead coral, but showed inverse trends to live coral. However, there was high variability among reef sites, which could be attributed to additional local stressors. Coral bleaching and resulting coral mortalities, such as the ones reported here, are of particular concern for small island nations like the Maldives, which are reliant on coral reefs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-245
Number of pages13
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2021. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Maldives
  • Indian Ocean
  • El Niño
  • mass coral bleaching
  • coral mortality
  • benthic cover


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