Coral Reefs

, Volume 32, Issue 3, pp 847-858

First online:

Ubiquitous associations and a peak fall prevalence between apicomplexan symbionts and reef corals in Florida and the Bahamas

  • N. L. KirkAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, 101 Life Sciences, Auburn University Email author 
  • , D. J. ThornhillAffiliated withDepartment of Conservation Science and Policy, Defenders of Wildlife
  • , D. W. KempAffiliated withOdum School of Ecology, University of Georgia
  • , W. K. FittAffiliated withOdum School of Ecology, University of Georgia
  • , S. R. SantosAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, 101 Life Sciences, Auburn UniversityCell and Molecular Biosciences Peak Program, Auburn University

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Although apicomplexans are a widely recognized and important parasitic group, little is known about those associated with invertebrates, such as reef-building scleractinian corals. To resolve the potential impact of apicomplexans on coral health, it is first necessary to further describe this group of putative parasites and determine their prevalence among host species. Here, it was hypothesized that apicomplexan prevalence would vary seasonally, similar to what occurs in other marine apicomplexans as well as some coral symbionts. To test this, Caribbean scleractinian species Porites astreoides, Montastraea (=Orbicella) annularis, M. (=O.) faveolata, and Siderastrea siderea were sampled seasonally from two reefs each in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas for 9- and 5.5-year periods, respectively. Utilizing a PCR-based screening assay, apicomplexan DNA was detected from most Floridian (80.1 %: n = 555/693) and Bahamian (90.7 %: n = 311/343) coral tissue samples collected over these multi-year periods. Furthermore, apicomplexan DNA was detected from nearly all (98.7 %: n = 78/79) single polyps sampled at multiple locations within six M. faveolata colonies, indicating little to no intracolonial variation in the screening assay. Mixed-model logistic regression was utilized to determine the effects of season, host species, and reef on apicomplexan prevalence. The model identified a significant seasonal effect, with the highest apicomplexan prevalence occurring during fall. There also was a large effect of host species, with apicomplexan prevalence significantly lower among S. siderea colonies relative to the other species. While reef did not have a significant effect in the full model, there was a significant difference in apicomplexan prevalence between Floridian and Bahamian reefs for S. siderea, implying regional differences in this host species. Despite seasonal and species-specific differences in prevalence, apicomplexans are ubiquitous constituents of these particular scleractinian coral species from Florida and the Bahamas.


Apicomplexa Prevalence Seasonality Coral holobiont Symbiodinium