Using energetic budgets to assess the effects of environmental stress on corals: are we measuring the right things?
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Historically, the response of marine invertebrates to their environment, and environmentally induced stress, has included some measurement of their physiology or metabolism. Eventually, this approach developed into comparative energetics and the construction of energetic budgets. More recently, coral reefs, and scleractinian corals in particular, have suffered significant declines due to climate change-related environmental stress. In addition to a number of physiological, biophysical and molecular measurements to assess “coral health,” there has been increased use of energetic approaches that have included the measurement of specific biochemical constituents (i.e., lipid concentrations) as a proxy for energy available to assess the potential outcomes of environmental stress on corals. In reading these studies, there appears to be some confusion between energy budgets and carbon budgets. Additionally, many assumptions regarding proximate biochemical composition, metabolic fuel preferences and metabolic quotients have been made, all of which are essential to construct accurate energy budgets and to convert elemental composition (i.e., carbon) to energy equivalents. Additionally, models of energetics such as the metabolic theory of ecology or dynamic energy budgets are being applied to coral physiology and include several assumptions that are not appropriate for scleractinian corals. As we assess the independent and interactive effects of multiple stressors on corals, efforts to construct quantitative energetic budgets should be a priority component of realistic multifactor experiments that would then improve the use of models as predictors of outcomes related to the effects of environmental change on corals.