The hermatypic scleractinian cryptic coral biota living under mobile rubble in the reef flat and back reef zones of a Fijian fringing reef was surveyed in detail in August of 1984; only 138 days later the reef was struck by the first of two sequential hurricanes (57 days apart). The same sample areas were re-studied in August 1985, thereby providing the first detailed census of pre- and post-hurricane cryptic reef coral populations, and allowing an assessment of hurricane impact on these populations.
The 61 cryptic species (60 corals and Millepora) show 88 percent commonality with the intertidal and shallow subtidal reef surface coral population (68 species), and therefore are a good representation of the surface biota.
A major effect of the hurricanes was a reduction of almost 50 percent in the number of boulders sheltering cryptic coral. However, among boulders that retained coral through the storms, there was only a 5 percent reduction in the mean number of corals per boulder, signifying that damage to the surviving population was minor. The composition of the surviving cryptic coral population is essentially unchanged from its pre-hurricane state (there are differences in absolute abundances), and the relative importance of the species does not show marked change in most cases. Coral morphologies show little change in their absolute and relative percent abundances after the hurricanes. In contrast to what is normally seen in reef surface habitats, therefore, coral colony form did not appear to be an important determinant in survivability for those living under boulders; primary selection by the storms seems to have been on boulder form rather than cryptic coral form.
Cryptic sub-rubble coral populations may function as a preserve for elements of the pre-hurricane reef surface community. For example, delicately-branching forms that are commonly devastated in reef surface habitats during hurricanes may, in some cases, be preserved in great numbers under boulders or in other cryptic habitats. This provides a “recruitment pool” that can greatly accelerate their recovery and re-establishment on the post-hurricane reef surface, and dampen the potentially severe community dislocations arising from intense competition for space in “instantaneous” new reef substrate.