Corals have built reefs on the benthos for millennia, becoming an essential element in marine ecosystems. Climate change and human impact, however, are favoring the invasion of non-calcifying benthic algae and reducing coral coverage. Corals rely on energy derived from photosynthesis and heterotrophic feeding, which depends on their surface area, to defend their outer perimeter. But the relation between geometric properties of corals and the outcome of competitive coral-algal interactions is not well known. To address this, 50 coral colonies interacting with algae were sampled in the Caribbean island of Curaçao. 3D and 2D digital models of corals were reconstructed to measure their surface area, perimeter, and polyp sizes. A box counting algorithm was applied to calculate their fractal dimension. The perimeter and surface dimensions were statistically non-fractal, but differences in the mean surface fractal dimension captured relevant features in the structure of corals. The mean fractal dimension and surface area were negatively correlated with the percentage of losing perimeter and positively correlated with the percentage of winning perimeter. The combination of coral perimeter, mean surface fractal dimension, and coral species explained 19% of the variability of losing regions, while the surface area, perimeter, and perimeter-to-surface area ratio explained 27% of the variability of winning regions. Corals with surface fractal dimensions smaller than two and small perimeters displayed the highest percentage of losing perimeter, while corals with large surface areas and low perimeter-to-surface ratios displayed the largest percentage of winning perimeter. This study confirms the importance of fractal surface dimension, surface area, and perimeter of corals in coral-algal interactions. In combination with non-geometrical measurements such as microbial composition, this approach could facilitate environmental conservation and restoration efforts on coral reefs.
Aaron C. Hartmann
Theory suggests that the direct transmission of beneficial endosymbionts (mutualists) from parents to offspring (vertical transmission) in animal hosts is advantageous and evolutionarily stable, yet many host species instead acquire their symbionts from the environment (horizontal acquisition). An outstanding question in marine biology is why some scleractinian corals do not provision their eggs and larvae with the endosymbiotic dinoflagellates that are necessary for a juvenile's ultimate survival. We tested whether the acquisition of photosynthetic endosymbionts (family Symbiodiniaceae) during the planktonic larval stage was advantageous, as is widely assumed, in the ecologically important and threatened Caribbean reef-building coral Orbicella faveolata. Following larval acquisition, similar changes occurred in host energetic lipid use and gene expression regardless of whether their symbionts were photosynthesizing, suggesting the symbionts did not provide the energetic benefit characteristic of the mutualism in adults. Larvae that acquired photosymbionts isolated from conspecific adults on their natal reef exhibited a reduction in swimming, which may interfere with their ability to find suitable settlement substrate, and also a decrease in survival. Larvae exposed to two cultured algal species did not exhibit differences in survival, but decreased their swimming activity in response to one species. We conclude that acquiring photosymbionts during the larval stage confers no advantages and can in fact be disadvantageous to this coral host. The timing of symbiont acquisition appears to be a critical component of a host's life history strategy and overall reproductive fitness, and this timing itself appears to be under selective pressure.
Reversing coral reef decline requires reducing environmental threats while actively restoring reef ecological structure and func-tion. A promising restoration approach uses coral breeding to boost natural recruitment and repopulate reefs with geneticallydiverse coral communities. Recent advances in predicting spawning, capturing spawn, culturing larvae, and rearing settlers haveenabled the successful propagation, settlement, and outplanting of coral offspring in all of the world’s major reef regions. Never-theless, breeding efforts frequently yield low survival, reflecting the type III survivorship curve of corals and poor condition ofmost reefs targeted for restoration. Furthermore, coral breeding programs are still limited in spatial scale and species diversity.Here, we highlight four priority areas for research and cooperative innovation to increase the effectiveness and scale of coralbreeding in restoration: (1) expanding the number of restoration sites and species, (2) improving broodstock selection to maximizethe genetic diversity and adaptive capacity of restored populations, (3) enhancing culture conditions to improve offspring healthbefore and after outplanting, and (4) scaling up infrastructure and technologies for large-scale coral breeding and restoration. Pri-oritizing efforts in these four areas will enable practitioners to address reef decline at relevant ecological scales, re-establish self-sustaining coral populations, and ensure the long-term success of restoration interventions. Overall, we aim to guide the coral res-toration community toward actions and opportunities that can yield rapid technical advances in larval rearing and coral breeding,foster interdisciplinary collaborations, and ultimately achieve the ecological restoration of coral reefs.
Coral reefs thrive and provide maximal ecosystem services when they support a multilevel trophic structure and grow in favorable water quality conditions that include high light levels, rapid water flow, and low nutrient levels. Poor water quality and other anthropogenic stressors have caused coral mortality in recent decades, leading to trophic downgrading and the loss of biological complexity on many reefs. Solutions to reverse the causes of trophic downgrading remain elusive, in part because efforts to restore reefs are often attempted in the same diminished conditions that caused coral mortality in the first place. Coral Arks, positively buoyant, midwater structures, are designed to provide improved water quality conditions and supportive cryptic biodiversity for translocated and naturally recruited corals to assemble healthy reef mesocosms for use as longterm research platforms. Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), passive settlement devices, are used to translocate the cryptic reef biodiversity to the Coral Arks, thereby providing a "boost" to natural recruitment and contributing ecological support to the coral health. We modeled and experimentally tested two designs of Arks to evaluate the drag characteristics of the structures and assess their long-term stability in the midwater based on their response to hydrodynamic forces. We then installed two designs of Arks structures at two Caribbean reef sites and measured several water quality metrics associated with the Arks environment over time. At deployment and 6 months after, the Coral Arks displayed enhanced metrics of reef function, including higher flow, light, and dissolved oxygen, higher survival of translocated corals, and reduced sedimentation and microbialization relative to nearby seafloor sites at the same depth. This method provides researchers with an adaptable, long-term platform for building reef communities where local water quality conditions can be adjusted by altering deployment parameters such as the depth and site.
Reef-building corals are ecosystem engineers that compete with other benthic organisms for space and resources. Corals harvest energy through their surface by photosynthesis and heterotrophic feeding, and they divert part of this energy to defend their outer colony perimeter against competitors. Here, we hypothesized that corals with a larger space-filling surface and smaller perimeters increase energy gain while reducing the exposure to competitors. This predicted an association between these two geometric properties of corals and the competitive outcome against other benthic organisms. To test the prediction, fifty coral colonies from the Caribbean island of Curaçao were rendered using digital 3D and 2D reconstructions. The surface areas, perimeters, box-counting dimensions (as a proxy of surface and perimeter space-filling), and other geometric properties were extracted and analyzed with respect to the percentage of the perimeter losing or winning against competitors based on the coral tissue apparent growth or damage. The increase in surface space-filling dimension was the only significant single indicator of coral winning outcomes, but the combination of surface space-filling dimension with perimeter length increased the statistical prediction of coral competition outcomes. Corals with larger surface space-filling dimensions (Ds > 2) and smaller perimeters displayed more winning outcomes, confirming the initial hypothesis. We propose that the space-filling property of coral surfaces complemented with other proxies of coral competitiveness, such as life history traits, will provide a more accurate quantitative characterization of coral competition outcomes on coral reefs. This framework also applies to other organisms or ecological systems that rely on complex surfaces to obtain energy for competition.