Coral Reefs

, Volume 32, Issue 3, pp 603–611 | Cite as

The endosymbiotic dinoflagellates (Symbiodinium sp.) of corals are parasites and mutualists

  • M. P. Lesser
  • M. Stat
  • R. D. Gates


The evolutionary success and continued survival of reef-building corals under increasing environmental change will, in part, be determined by the composition of their endosymbiotic dinoflagellate communities (Symbiodinium sp.). Recent research suggests that differences in the phylotype composition of Symbiodinium in the same host can lead to different outcomes for the host when exposed to similar environmental conditions. One explanation for these observations is that symbioses between corals and Symbiodinium represent a continuum of interaction states that encompass mutualisms and parasitisms consistent with current evolutionary theory developed for other symbiotic systems. Here, we discuss the evidence supporting the existence of a parasitic to mutualistic continuum in Symbiodinium interactions and propose that a consideration of the evolutionary ecology of these associations will advance our understanding of how environmental change will influence the ecological outcomes in these important symbioses. We advocate that a robust taxonomic structure for Symbiodinium sp. and empirical studies on sexual reproduction in Symbiodinium, the stability of interaction states among Symbiodinium symbioses spatially and temporally and how interaction states change as the environment changes will generate data for models that accurately forecast how climate change will influence the persistence of corals and the reefs they structure.


Corals Dinoflagellates Mutualistic Parasitic Symbiodinium sp 



The authors wish to thank many colleagues in the coral reef community, coming from many viewpoints, for their energetic discussions over the years that have stimulated critical thinking on the subject of this perspective. We also wish to thank the numerous funding sources that have continued to support our work on the biology and ecology of corals and coral reefs (NSF OCE-0752604 to RDG) and a postdoctoral fellowship to MS from the UWA-AIMS-CSIRO collaborative agreement. This is HIMB contribution number 1556 and SOEST contribution number 8952.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical SciencesUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Oceans Institute and Centre for Microscopy Characterisation and AnalysisThe University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia
  3. 3.The Australian Institute of Marine SciencesPerthAustralia
  4. 4.CSIRO Marine and AtmosphericWembleyAustralia
  5. 5.The Hawai’i Institute of Marine BiologyUniversity of HawaiiKane’ohe BayUSA

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