Ever since Darwin’s early descriptions of coral reefs, scientists have debated how one of the world’s most productive and diverse ecosystems can thrive in the marine equivalent of a desert. It is an enigma how the flux of dissolved organic matter (DOM), the largest resource produced on reefs, is transferred to higher trophic levels. Here we show that sponges make DOM available to fauna by rapidly expelling filter cells as detritus that is subsequently consumed by reef fauna. This “sponge loop” was confirmed in aquarium and in situ food web experiments, using 13C- and 15N-enriched DOM. The DOM-sponge-fauna pathway explains why biological hot spots such as coral reefs persist in oligotrophic seas—the reef’s paradox—and has implications for reef ecosystem functioning and conservation strategies.
A major challenge in coral biology is to find the most adequate and phylogenetically informative characters that allow for distinction of closely related coral species. Therefore, data on corallite morphology and genetic data are often combined to increase phylogenetic resolution. In this study, we address the question to which degree genetic data and quantitative information on overall coral colony morphologies identify similar groupings within closely related morphospecies of the Caribbean coral genus Madracis. Such comparison of phylogenies based on colony morphology and genetic data will also provide insight into the degree to which genotype and phenotype overlap. We have measured morphological features of three closely related Caribbean coral species of the genus Madracis (M. formosa, M. decactis and M. carmabi). Morphological differences were then compared with phylogenies of the same species based on two nuclear DNA markers, i.e. ATPSa and SRP54. Our analysis showed that phylogenetic trees based on (macroscopical) morphological properties and phylogenetic trees based on DNA markers ATPSa and SRP54 are partially similar indicating that morphological characteristics at the colony level provide another axis, in addition to commonly used features such as corallite morphology and ecological information, to delineate genetically different coral species. We discuss this new method that allows systematic quantitative comparison between morphological characteristics of entire colonies and genetic data.
Recruitment of the sea urchin Diadema antillarum philippi, 1845 was studied on artificial recruitment panels along the leeward coast of the island of Curaçao, southern Caribbean. data were compared with historical data from the same coast that were collected before (1982–1983) and after (1984) the Caribbean-wide mass mortality of Diadema in October 1983. Average recruitment rates observed in 2005 were equal to 2.2 times lower compared to those observed before the D. antillarum die-off (1982 and 1983), but 56.5 times higher than those observed after the die-off in 1984. The increase in recruitment rates between 1984 and 2005 was 5–51 times greater than the increase in abundance of adult individuals over the same period. This suggests that despite the largely recovered recruitment rates of this important reef herbivore, unknown sources of high post-settlement mortality currently prevent a similar recovery of its adult population.
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.
The coral reefs of Curaçao represent one of the best reef systems left in the Caribbean at present. However, this does not mean that these reef systems are doing well. On the contrary: increased coastal development has resulted in pollution of near shore waters through the release of (untreated) sewage, nutrients and chemicals and overfishing represent some of the factors that have contributed to a near 20% decrease in the abundance of corals on the island in the last 25 years. Fish communities have been impacted similarly through uncontrolled fishing practices and Curacao presently holds an intermediate rank among Caribbean nations in terms of fish abundance. Coral reef systems provide the foundation for the island’s tourism and fishing industry and protect near shore developments against storms. Furthermore, healthy reefs prevent the rise of disease-causing bacteria in near shore waters preventing people, locals and visitors alike, from becoming ill. At the current rate of decline, coral reefs will have virtually disappeared around Curacao around the year 2060. Presently, it is estimated that Curaçaoan reefs bring in at least $1.6 million per kilometer per year through revenue from tourism, fishing and coastal protection alone. The decline of reefs will thus come with severe economic consequences for a recently formed country that finds itself still in a position to avert such catastrophe.
This report summarizes some of the information currently available to illustrate a potentially dark future for Curaçaoan reefs. Hopefully this report helps to illustrate some of the factors contributing to this decline so directed management strategies can be designed and put in place in order to maintain a unique aspect of Curaçao that makes it stand out in the region: its coral reefs.
Background: Rapid determination of which nutrients limit the primary production of macroalgae and seagrasses is vital for understanding the impacts of eutrophication on marine and freshwater ecosystems. However, current methods to assess nutrient limitation are often cumbersome and time consuming. For phytoplankton, a rapid method has been described based on short-term changes in chlorophyll fluorescence upon nutrient addition, also known as Nutrient-Induced Fluorescence Transients (NIFTs). Thus far, though, the NIFT technique was not well suited for macroalgae and seagrasses.
Methodology & Principal Findings: We developed a new experimental setup so that the NIFT technique can be used to assess nutrient limitation of benthic macroalgae and seagrasses. We first tested the applicability of the technique on sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) cultured in the laboratory on nutrient-enriched medium without either nitrogen or phosphorus. Addition of the limiting nutrient resulted in a characteristic change in the fluorescence signal, whereas addition of non- limiting nutrients did not yield a response. Next, we applied the NIFT technique to field samples of the encrusting fan-leaf alga Lobophora variegata, one of the key algal species often involved in the degradation of coral reef ecosystems. The results pointed at co-limitation of L. variegata by phosphorus and nitrogen, although it responded more strongly to phosphate than to nitrate and ammonium addition. For turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) we found the opposite result, with a stronger NIFT response to nitrate and ammonium than to phosphate.
Conclusions & Significance: Our extension of the NIFT technique offers an easy and fast method (30–60 min per sample) to determine nutrient limitation of macroalgae and seagrasses. We successfully applied this technique to macroalgae on coral reef ecosystems and to seagrass in a tropical inner bay, and foresee wider application to other aquatic plants, and to other marine and freshwater ecosystems.
K-selected species with low rates of sexual recruitment may utilise storage effects where low adult mortality allows a number of individuals to persist through time until a favourable recruitment period occurs. Alternative methods of recruitment may become increasingly important for such species if the availability of favourable conditions for sexual recruitment decline under rising anthropogenic disturbance and climate change. Here, we test the hypotheses that asexual dispersal is an integral life history strategy not only in branching corals, as previously reported, but also in a columnar, ‘K-selected’ coral species, and that its prevalence is driven by the frequency of severe hurricane disturbance. Montastraea annularis is a long-lived major frame-work builder of Caribbean coral reefs but its survival is threatened by the consequences of climate induced disturbance, such as bleaching, ocean acidification and increased prevalence of disease. 700 M. annularis samples from 18 reefs within the Caribbean were genotyped using six polymorphic microsatellite loci. We demonstrate that asexual reproduction occurs at varying frequency across the species-range and significantly contributes to the local abundance of M. annularis, with its contribution increasing in areas with greater hurricane frequency. We tested several competing hypotheses that might explain the observed pattern of genotypic diversity. 64% of the variation in genotypic diversity among the sites was explained by hurricane incidence and reef slope, demonstrating that large-scale disturbances combine with local habitat characteristics to shape the balance between sexual and asexual reproduction in populations of M. annularis.
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.
New observations indicating undesirable trends on Bonairean reefs
Unusual high abundances of the colonial tunicate Trididemnum on Bonaire’s Northwestern reefs
Population explosions of coral and gorgonian eating snails
Overgrowth of deeper reefs by the brown alga Lobophora variegata
Increased abundance of coral‐destroying territorial damselfish
Unprecedented predation on native fish by the invasive red lionfish
Historic factors negatively affecting the “health” of Bonaire’s reefs
Unknown stressors for Bonaire’s reefs