A 3000 year record of Caribbean reef urchin communities reveals causes and consequences of long-term decline in Diadema antillarum
Katie L. Cramer et al. 2017 in Ecography “Urchins are the last abundant grazers of macroalgae on most Caribbean reefs following the historical overexploitation of herbivorous fishes. The long-spined urchin Diadema antillarum was particularly effective at controlling macroalgae and facilitating coral dominance on Caribbean reefs until its ecological extinction from a catastrophic disease epidemic in the early 1980s. Despite their important role in the structure and functioning of Caribbean reef ecosystems, the natural dynamics of Caribbean reef urchin communities are poorly known due to the paucity of ecological survey data prior to large-scale human disturbances and the Diadema dieoff. To help resolve the baseline abundances and ecological roles of common urchin taxa, we track changes in urchin abundance and composition over the past 3000 yr from analysis of subfossil urchin spines preserved in reef matrix cores collected in Caribbean Panama. Echinometra consistently dominated the subfossil spine assemblage, while Diadema was consistently rare in the subfossil record in this region. Rather than increasing during a period of heightened human exploitation of their fish competitors and predators, Diadema began declining over a millennium ago. Convergent cross mapping (CCM) causality analyses reveal that Diadema abundance is causally related to coral community composition. Diadema is negatively affected by Acropora cervicornis dominance, likely due to the tight association between this coral and the threespot damselfish, an effective Diadema competitor. Conversely, Diadema positively affects the abundance of the coral Madracis mirabilis, possibly via its control of macroalgae. Causal relationships were not detected among abundances of individual urchin taxa, indicating that inter-specific echinoid competition is not a factor limiting Diadema recovery. Our detailed record of prehistorical and historical urchin community dynamics suggests that the failure of Diadema to recover over 30 yr after its mass mortality event may be due in part to the prey release of damselfish following the long-term overfishing of piscivorous fishes.

Interference behavior and ecology of threespot damselfish (Eupomacentrus planifrons)
A. Houston Williams 1979 in Oecologia “Interference behavior by threespot damselfish directed at the sea urchins, Diadema antillarum and Echinometra viridis, differed in levels of aggression and discrimination. Higher aggression towards and recognition of Diadema by threespots was correlated with the distribution of Diadema along edges of coral patches. Lower aggression levels combined with lower recognition levels of Echinometra were correlated with a distribution of Echinometra closer to damselfish algal lawns. Differences in behavior of the urchins stimulated differing levels of aggression by the damselfish directly affecting the distribution of the urchins in the back-reef environment.”

Competition between herbivourous fishes and urchins on Caribbean reefs
Mark E. Hay & Phillip R. Taylor 1985 in Oecologia “When the common sea urchin Diadema antillarum was removed from a 50 m strip of reef in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, cover of upright algae and the grazing rates and densities of herbivorous parrotfish and surgeonfish increased significantly within 11–16 weeks when compared to immediately adjacent control areas. Sixteen months after removal, Diadema had recovered to 70% of original density, abundance of upright algae no longer differed between removal and control areas, and the abundance and grazing activity of herbivorous fish in the removal was approaching equivalence with control areas. On a patch reef in St. Croix that had been cleared of Diadema 10–11 years earlier (Ogden et al. 1973b), urchins had recovered to only 50–60% of original density. This reef still showed significantly higher rates of grazing by fish and a significantly greater density of parrotfish and surgeonfish than a nearby control reef where Diadema densities had not been altered. These results indicate that high Diadema densities (7–12/m2 for this study) may suppress the densities of herbivorous fish on Caribbean reefs.”