Interest in the ecology of sponges on coral reefs has grown in recent years with mounting evidence that sponges are becoming dominant members of reef communities, particularly in the Caribbean. New estimates of water column processing by sponge pumping activities combined with discoveries related to carbon and nutrient cycling have led to novel hypotheses about the role of sponges in reef ecosystem function. Among these developments, a debate has emerged about the relative effects of bottom-up (food availability) and top-down (predation) control on the community of sponges on Caribbean fore-reefs. In this review, we evaluate the impact of the latest findings on the debate, as well as provide new insights based on older citations. Recent studies that employed different research methods have demonstrated that dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and detritus are the principal sources of food for a growing list of sponge species, challenging the idea that the relative availability of living picoplankton is the sole proxy for sponge growth or abundance. New reports have confirmed earlier findings that reef macroalgae release labile DOC available for sponge nutrition. Evidence for top- down control of sponge community structure by fish predation is further supported by gut content studies and historical population estimates of hawksbill turtles, which likely had a much greater impact on relative sponge abundances on Caribbean reefs of the past. Implicit to investigations designed to address the bottom-up vs. top- down debate are appropriate studies of Caribbean fore-reef environments, where benthic communities are relatively homogeneous and terrestrial influences and abiotic effects are minimized. One recent study designed to test both aspects of the debate did so using experiments conducted entirely in shallow lagoonal habitats dominated by mangroves and seagrass beds. The top-down results from this study are reinterpreted as supporting past research demonstrating predator preferences for sponge species that are abundant in these lagoonal habitats, but grazed away in fore- reef habitats. We conclude that sponge communities on Caribbean fore-reefs of the past and present are largely structured by predation, and offer new directions for research, such as determining the environmental conditions under which sponges may be food-limited (e.g., deep sea, lagoonal habitats) and monitoring changes in sponge community structure as populations of hawksbill turtles rebound.
Consumer-mediated indirect effects at the community level are difficult to demonstrate empirically. Here, we show an explicit indirect effect of overfishing on competition between sponges and reef-building corals from surveys of 69 sites across the Caribbean. Leveraging the large-scale, long-term removal of sponge predators, we selected overfished sites where intensive methods, primarily fish-trapping, have been employed for decades or more, and compared them to sites in remote or marine protected areas (MPAs) with variable levels of enforcement. Sponge-eating fishes (angelfishes and parrotfishes) were counted at each site, and the benthos surveyed, with coral colonies scored for interaction with sponges. Overfished sites had >3 fold more overgrowth of corals by sponges, and mean coral contact with sponges was 25.6%, compared with 12.0% at less-fished sites. Greater contact with corals by sponges at overfished sites was mostly by sponge species palatable to sponge preda- tors. Palatable species have faster rates of growth or reproduction than defended sponge species, which instead make metabolically expensive chemical defenses. These results validate the top-down conceptual model of sponge community ecology for Caribbean reefs, as well as provide an unambiguous justification for MPAs to protect threatened reef-building corals.
An unanticipated outcome of the benthic survey component of this study
was that overfished sites had lower mean macroalgal cover (23.1% vs. 38.1% for less-fished sites), a result that is contrary to prevailing assumptions about seaweed control by herbivorous fishes. Because we did not quantify herbivores for this study, we interpret this result with caution, but suggest that additional large-scale studies comparing intensively overfished and MPA sites are warranted to examine the relative impacts of herbivorous fishes and urchins on Caribbean reefs.