Epidemiology of skeletal eroding band on the Great Barrier Reef and the role of injury in the initiation of this widespread coral disease
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Skeletal eroding band (SEB), which manifests as dense aggregations of the ciliate Halofolliculina corallasia, was the first coral disease described from the Indo-Pacific. Little is known about its etiology or impact. This study describes the distribution, prevalence and host range of SEB on a 500 km extent of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), together with in situ rates of progression and infection following experimental injury. SEB occurred on 90–100% of reefs surveyed (n=18) in each of 3 years, demonstrating that SEB is widely distributed and persistent. SEB had the highest prevalence of any disease, affecting approximately 2% of 283,486 scleractinians and hydrocorals surveyed. Its host range was large, affecting 12 families and at least 82 scleractinian species, as well as the hydrocoral, Millepora. Corals in the families Pocilloporidae and Acroporidae were most susceptible, the former being up to five times more susceptible than other families. Progressive tissue loss was recorded on 95% of Acropora muricata colonies monitored (n = 18), with rates of SEB progression averaging ∼2 mm/day. Injury experiments demonstrated that H. corallasia, the putative pathogen of SEB, readily colonised recently exposed coral skeleton in the absence of a vector, but did not colonise intact coral tissue. Invading ciliates failed to form band-like aggregations associated with progressive tissue loss on any of three coral species tested experimentally, suggesting that, while H. corallasia readily colonises recently exposed coral skeleton, it may not be sufficient in itself to cause tissue mortality. Interactions with additional agents or factors, increasing ciliate virulence or lowering disease resistance of coral hosts may be required before halofolliculinid infections become associated with tissue loss.