Coral reefs can undergo relatively rapid changes in the dominant biota, a phenomenon referred to as phase shift. Various reasons have been proposed to explain this phenomenon including increased human disturbance, pollution, or changes in coral reef biota that serve a major ecological function such as depletion of grazers. However, pinpointing the actual factors potentially responsible can be problematic. Here we show a phase shift from coral to the corallimorpharian Rhodactis howesii associated with a long line vessel that wrecked in 1991 on an isolated atoll (Palmyra) in the central Pacific Ocean. We documented high densities of R. howesii near the ship that progressively decreased with distance from the ship whereas R. howesii were rare to absent in other parts of the atoll. We also confirmed high densities of R. howesii around several buoys recently installed on the atoll in 2001. This is the first time that a phase shift on a coral leef has been unambiguously associated with man-made structures. This association was made, in part, because of the remoteness of Palmyra and its recent history of minimal human habitation or impact. Phase shifts can have long-term negative ramification for coral reefs, and eradication of organisms responsible for phase shifts in marine ecosystems can be difficult, particularly if such organisms cover a large area. The extensive R. howesii invasion and subsequent loss of coral reef habitat at Palmyra also highlights the importance of rapid removal of shipwrecks on corals reefs to mitigate the potential of reef overgrowth by invasives.
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Phase shift from a coral to a corallimorph-dominated reef associated with a shipwreck on Palmyra atoll