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.
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.