When juveniles must tolerate harsh environments early in life, the disproportionate success of certain phenotypes across multiple early life stages will dramatically influence adult community composition and dynamics. In many species, large offspring have a higher tolerance for stressful environments than do smaller conspecifics (parental effects). However, we have a poor understanding of whether the benefits of increased parental investment carry over after juveniles escape harsh environments or progress to later life stages (latent effects). To investigate whether parental effects and latent effects interactively influence offspring success, we determined the degree to which latent effects of harsh abiotic conditions are mediated by offspring size in two stony coral species. Larvae of both species were sorted by size class and exposed to relatively high-temperature or low-salinity conditions. Survivorship was quantified for six days in these stressful environments, after which surviving larvae were placed in ambient conditions and evaluated for their ability to settle and metamorphose. We subsequently assessed long-term post-settlement survival of one species in its natural environment. Following existing theory, we expected that, within and between species, larger offspring would have a higher tolerance for harsh environmental conditions than smaller offspring. We found that large size did enhance offspring performance in each species. However, large offspring size within a species did not reduce the proportional, negative latent effects of harsh larval environments. Furthermore, the coral species that produces larger offspring was more, not less, prone to negative latent effects. We conclude that, within species, large offspring size does not increase resistance to latent effects. Comparing between species, we conclude that larger offspring size does not inherently confer greater robustness, and we instead propose that other life history characteristics such as larval duration better predict the tolerance of offspring to harsh and variable abiotic conditions. Additionally, when considering how stressful environments influence offspring performance, studies that only evaluate direct effects may miss crucial downstream (latent) effects on juveniles that have significant consequences for long-term population dynamics.
Algae-derived dissolved organic matter has been hypothesized to induce mortality of reef building corals. One proposed killing mechanism is a zone of hypoxia created by rapidly growing microbes. To investigate this hypothesis, biological oxygen demand (BOD) optodes were used to quantify the change in oxygen concentrations of microbial communities following exposure to exudates generated by turf algae and crustose coralline algae (CCA). BOD optodes were embedded with microbial communities cultured from Montastraea annularis and Mussismilia hispida, and respiration was measured during exposure to turf and CCA exudates. The oxygen concentrations along the optodes were visualized with a low-cost Submersible Oxygen Optode Recorder (SOOpR) system. With this system we observed that exposure to exudates derived from turf algae stimulated higher oxygen drawdown by the coral-associated bacteria than CCA exudates or seawater controls. Furthermore, in both turf and CCA exudate treatments, all microbial communities (coral-, algae-associated and pelagic) contributed significantly to the observed oxygen drawdown. This suggests that the driving factor for elevated oxygen consumption rates is the source of exudates rather than the initially introduced microbial community. Our results demonstrate that exudates from turf algae may contribute to hypoxia-induced coral stress in two different coral genera as a result of increased biological oxygen demand of the local microbial community. Additionally, the SOOpR system developed here can be applied to measure the BOD of any culturable microbe or microbial community.
Despite the fact that most of the severe demographic bottlenecks in coral populations occur during their earliest life stages, information on the reproductive biology and early life history traits of many coral species is limited and often inferred from adult traits only. This study reports on several atypical aspects of the reproductive biology and early life ecology of the grooved brain coral, Diploria labyrinthiformis (Linnaeus, 1758), a conspicuous reef-building species on Caribbean reefs. The timing of gamete release of D. labyrinthiformis was monitored in Curaçao over eight consecutive months, and embryogenesis, planulae behavior, and settlement rates were observed and quantified. We further studied growth and symbiont acquisition in juvenile D. labyrinthiformis for 3.5 yr and compared settler survival under ambient and nutrient-enriched conditions in situ. Notably, D. labyrinthiformis reproduced during daylight hours in six consecutive monthly spawning events between May and September 2013, with a peak in June. This is the largest number of reproductive events per year ever observed in a broadcast-spawning Caribbean coral species. In settlement experiments, D. labyrinthiformis planulae swam to the bottom of culture containers 13 h after spawning and rapidly settled when provided with settlement cues (42% within 14 h). After 5 months, the survival and growth rates of settled juveniles were 3.7 and 1.9 times higher, respectively, for settlers that acquired zooxanthellae within 1 month after settlement, compared to those that acquired symbionts later on. Nutrient enrichment increased settler survival fourfold, but only for settlers that had acquired symbionts within 1 month after settlement. With at least six reproductive events per year, a short planktonic larval phase, high settlement rates, and a positive response to nutrient enrichment, the broadcast-spawning species D. labyrinthiformisdisplays a range of reproductive and early life-history traits that are more often associated with brooding coral species, illustrating that classical divisions of coral species by reproductive mode alone do not always reflect the true biology and ecology of their earliest life stages.
Oil spills cause damage to marine wildlife that lasts well past their immediate aftermath. Marine offspring that must settle and metamorphose to reach adulthood may be particularly prone to harm if the legacy of oil exposure interrupts later transitions across life stages. Following an oil spill on Curaçao, we found that oil-contaminated seawater reduced settlement of 2 coral species by 85% and 40% after exposure had ended. The effect of contamination on settlement was more severe than any direct or latent effects on survival. Therefore, oil exposure reduces the ability of corals to transition to their adult life stage, even after they move away from oil contamination. This interruption of the life cycle likely has severe consequences for recruitment success in these foundational and threatened organisms. Latent, sublethal, and behavioral effects on marine organisms—as shown in this study—are not commonly considered during oil-spill impact assessments, increasing the likelihood that harm to marine species goes underestimated or unmeasured.
The Caribbean pillar coral Dendrogyra cylindrus was recently listed as a threatened species under the United States Endangered Species Act. One of the major threats to this species is its low, virtually undetectable recruitment rate. To our knowledge, sexually-produced recruits have never been found in over 30 years of surveys of Caribbean reefs. Until recently, the reproductive behavior of D. cylindrus was uncharacterized, limiting efforts to study its early life history, identify population bottlenecks, and conduct outplanting projects with sexually-produced offspring. In Curaçao, we observed the spawning behavior of this species over three years and five lunar cycles. We collected gametes from spawning individuals on three occasions and attempted to rear larvae and primary polyp settlers.
The mechanisms by which algae disperse across space on coral reefs are poorly known. We inves- tigated the ability of four common Caribbean herbivorous fish species to disperse viable algal fragments through consumption of macroalgae and subsequent defecation. Fragments of all major algal taxa (Phaeophyta, Rhodophyta, and Chlorophyta) were found in 98.7 % of the fecal droppings of all fish species; however, the ability to survive gut passage and reattach to a substrate differed between algal taxa. While survival and reattachment approached zero for Phaeophyta and Chlorophyta, 76.4 % of the fragments belonging to the group Rhodophyta (mostly species in the order Gelidiaceae) survived gut passage, and were able to grow and reattach to the substrate by forming new rhizoids. Our results thus show that Gelidid algal species are dispersed by swimming herbivores. While the relative contribution of this mechanism to overall algal dispersal and recruitment in a wider ecological context remains unknown, our findings illustrate a previously undescribed mechanism of algal dispersal on coral reefs which is analogous to the dispersal of terrestrial plants, plant fragments, and seeds via herbivore ingestion and defecation.
Free-swimming larvae of tropical corals go through a critical life-phase when they return from the open ocean to select a suitable settlement substrate. During the planktonic phase of their life cycle, the behaviours of small coral larvae (<1 mm) that influence settlement success are difficult to observe in situ and are therefore largely unknown. Here, we show that coral larvae respond to acoustic cues that may facilitate detection of habitat from large distances and from upcurrent of preferred settlement locations. Using in situ choice chambers, we found that settling coral larvae were attracted to reef sounds, produced mainly by fish and crustaceans, which we broadcast underwater using loudspeakers. Our discovery that coral larvae can detect and respond to sound is the first description of an auditory response in the invertebrate phylum Cnidaria, which includes jellyfish, anemones, and hydroids as well as corals. If, like settlement-stage reef fish and crustaceans, coral larvae use reef noise as a cue for orientation, the alleviation of noise pollution in the marine environment may gain further urgency.