A mechanism of transmission and factors affecting coral susceptibility to Halofolliculina sp. infection
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Anecdotal evidence collected since 2004 suggests that infections caused by ciliates in the genus Halofolliculina may be related to coral mortality in more than 25 scleractinian species in the Caribbean. However, the relationship between the presence of ciliates and coral mortality has not yet been firmly established. Field and laboratory manipulations were used to test if ciliate infections harm corals, if ciliates are able to infect healthy colonies, and if coral susceptibility to ciliate infection depends on temperature, depth, distance to an infected colony, and the presence of injuries. Ciliate infections were always characterized by a visually detectable front of ciliates located on recently exposed coral skeletons. These infections altered the normal structure of the colony by causing tissue mortality (0.8 ± 0.95 cm month−1, mean ± SD) and by delaying or preventing recovery from injuries. Under laboratory conditions, ciliates transmitted directly and horizontally from infected to healthy hosts, and coral susceptibility to ciliate infections increased with the presence of injuries. After invasion, the ciliate population grew, rapidly and after 8 d, produced tissue mortality on 32% of newly infected hosts. Thus, our results support the existence of a new Caribbean coral syndrome that is associated with tissue mortality, is infectious, and transmits directly and horizontally. Even though the role of ciliates in the development of lesions on coral tissues remains unclear, their presence is by far the most conspicuous sign of this syndrome; thus, we propose to name this condition Caribbean ciliate infection (CCI).