Reef dissolution : Rates and mechanisms of coral dissolution by bioeroding sponges and reef communities

Embargo until April 04 2020

PhD thesis

For coral reefs to persist, the rate of CaCO3 production must be greater than the rate of erosion to enable positive growth. Negative impacts of global change (ocean acidification and warming) and local stressors (eutrophication, overfishing) on accretion co-occur with positive effects of these changes on bioerosion capacity and chemical dissolution by excavating euendolithic organisms. This is especially relevant for reefs characterised with low calcifying rates as they will tip faster into net loss. The Caribbean reefs suffered from a decrease by up to 80% in scleractinian coral cover in the past 50 years, their configuration bears very little resemblance with reefs pre1980s, in terms of benthic composition, coral cover and structural complexity. Specifically, excavating sponges can contribute up to 90% of the total macroborer activity on coral reefs and their rates of bioerosion are positively affected by pCO2. The overarching aim of this thesis was to quantify and understand the accretion and loss terms of coral reef communities with a focus on the interactions of anthropogenic ocean acidification and eutrophication with bioerosion by coral-excavating sponges.The use of incubations was central in this piece of work. Changes in the chemical composition of the water overlying sponges and reef communities indicate the relative contribution of metabolic processes such as net calcification/dissolution and net respiration/production. However, we first used fluorescence microscopy to investigate the underlying mechanisms of CaCO3 dissolution by excavating sponges. It revealed that they promote CaCO3 dissolution by decreasing pH at the sponge/coral interface. The high [H+] at this site is achieved through delivery of low-pH vesicles by the etching cells. The enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which is responsible for significantly increasing the speed of the reversible reaction H2O+CO2↔H++HCO3−, has been shown to be associated to the sponge’s etching processes and is therefore thought to play a role in the dissolution of CaCO3. By blocking its activity whilst incubating sponges and analysing the rate of dissolution, CA was found to play an important role in speeding up protonation of HCO3− ions at the dissolution site, enabling CO2 to diffuse out of the etching area. When exposed to different ranges of ocean acidification and eutrophication, bioerosion rates increased with both variables but no synergistic relation was revealed. Incubations performed at the community level around Saba and Curacao yielded net community calcification (NCC) rates which were lower than those reported for reef flats worldwide. Still, Saba coral reefs are considered relatively pristine sites compared to the average within the wider Caribbean. Around Curaçao, incubations on reef assemblages dominated by coral yielded even lower NCC rates. Incubations of other benthic assemblages that currently characterized shallow Caribbean reef substrate (such as bioeroding sponges, benthic cyanobacterial mats and sand) all resulted in net dissolution. For both Saba and Curaçao, results suggest that reef calcification on these sites is barely able to compensate the CaCO3 losses due to dissolution from other opportunistic benthic residents. With the ongoing global and local pressures, the delicate balance between CaCO3 accretion and loss is likely to tip.


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