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.
In studies on coral–algal interactions, particular attention has been devoted to corals. Focusing on the macroalgal genus Lobophora (Dictyotales, Phaeophyceae), common on coral reefs and extensively studied in coral–algal interactions, this review aims to summarize what is known and highlight the conditions necessary for Lobophora blooms, the contrasting effects on corals, and the taxonomic and functional diversity of the genus. Studies show that under normal conditions, Lobophora–coral interactions are natural and pose no specific threat to corals as long as the algal cover is controlled by coral defenses and herbivory. In contrast, disturbances freeing-up space for colonization and reducing herbivory permit Lobophora in association with other seaweeds to opportunistically take over reefs and by density-dependent negative feedbacks prevent corals from recovering. Lobophora is, however, a species-rich group and only certain Lobophora species thrive in degraded reefs, and the specificities of interactions and phase shifts will vary among species, thus stressing the importance of taxonomic identification in the study of coral–algal interactions. This review accentuates the complexity of coral–algal interactions and the importance to consider not only the taxonomy of corals and seaweeds but also their life history traits, ecology, microbiome, and the environmental settings.
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.
Coral reefs around the globe are subject to environmental and anthropogenic stressors that are causing habitat degradation and a decline in reef resilience. Past studies of Caribbean reefs document a decrease in coral cover with a simultaneous increase in algal cover after significant stress, disturbance, or coral mortality. The long-term shift from coral dominated reefs to algae dominated reefs is known as a coral – algal phase shift. This study assessed the progression of a coral-algal phase shift at the Yellow Sub study site on Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean, by comparing current coral and algal benthic cover to historical data at a nearby study site. Research was conducted over a five-week period from September to October 2012. Twenty 10 m transects were filmed and analyzed through Coral Point Count software to determine percent live coral and algal cover. Mean coral cover at the study site was 14.25%, algae cover was 72.37% and the algae: coral ratio was 5.07. Diseases present were noted and included Yellow Band disease, White Plague, Dark Spot disease, and coral bleaching. In comparison to historical data at a nearby study site, a significant increase in the algae: coral ratio was observed, indicating the progression of a coral – algal phase shift at Yellow Sub study site. This study served to contribute to the scientific knowledge of Bonaire reef ecosystem resilience and the results obtained will help provide evidence and motivation to increase coral reef conservation efforts.
The Saba Bank is the largest submerged carbonate platform of 2,200 km2 in the Caribbean Sea, which lies partially within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Netherlands and partially within the territorial waters of Saba and St. Eustatius. The Saba Bank houses an expansive coral reef ecosystem with a rich diversity of species and as such is also an important source of commercial fish for the nearby islands.
The Saba Bank furthermore forms the largest protected area of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, after the Dutch part of the Wadden Sea in Europe. It was declared a protected area by the Dutch Government in 2010 and has been registered as such in the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) protocol of the Cartagena Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean. In 2012 it was internationally declared a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and an Ecological or Biological Significant Area (EBSA) by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). As there are no large land masses nearby, the Saba Bank can be considered as relatively pristine and remote from human influences. Anthropogenic threats such as fisheries and environmental threats such as climate change, sea surface temperature increase and acidification, however, also threaten the Bank’s coral reefs.
As part of the Saba Bank research program 2011-2016, commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ), expeditions to the Saba Bank were conducted in October 2011 and from 19 to 26 October 2013. The Saba Bank research program aims to obtain information on the biodiversity, ecological functioning and carrying capacity for commercial fisheries to facilitate sustainable management of the area. The expedition was funded by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands.
The primary objectives of the 2011 and 2013 research expeditions were to collect data on benthic and reef fish communities, and on sponges and nutritional sources of the sponge community. Studies added to the 2013 expedition were research into the structural complexity of the reef; coral-algal interactions; and connectivity between populations. An international, multidisciplinary team of marine biologists investigated the coral reef structure as well as the spatial variation in species assemblages and population genetic connectivity of corals, algae, fish and sponges during eleven SCUBA dives at 20-30m depth.
During the expedition thirty-three 50m long transects resulted in more than 2000 images of the reef, and over 5000 fish counts of almost 100 fish species. A preliminary comparison with the data from 2011 gives the impression of a reduction in snappers, groupers and grunts, while there were noticeably more sharks. There were fewer algae on the Saba Bank than in 2011, possibly indicating a healthier reef, although there appeared to be a gradient of increasing algal cover towards the island of Saba. It seems unlikely that this is related to anthropogenic activities on the island, but more likely to natural causes.
An overview of collected data and preliminary results is given in this progress report. Further comparative analysis between the data collected in the 2011 and 2013 and further analysis between research components, e.g. between algal biomass, herbivorous fish biomass and nutrient levels, will be performed in 2014. This may give more information on the potential causes of the observed south-north algal gradient.
The expedition elicited large public interest and media coverage in both Dutch and Caribbean media (details provided in Appendix F). The work of the researchers, both above and under water, was also recorded on film as part of the documentary series Marine Life for Discovery Channel.