Coral reefs are under increasing stress from local and global factors. Long-term perspectives are becoming increasingly important for understanding ecosystem responses. Here, we provide insights from a 91-year study of the Low Isles on the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) that begins with the pioneering Great Barrier Reef Expedition (1928-29). We show that intertidal communities have experienced major phase-shifts since 1928, with few signs of a return to the initial state. Coral communities demolished by cyclones 50 years ago and exposed to multiple stressors have yet to recover. Richness and diversity of these communities systematically declined for corals and other invertebrates. Specifically, massive corals have replaced branching corals, and soft corals have become much more numerous. The long-term perspective of this study illustrates the importance of considering multiple factors in reef decline, and potential recovery, of coral reefs, and the importance of tracking changes in community structure as well as coral abundance over long periods.
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© 2019, The Author(s).