Coral Reefs

, Volume 33, Issue 3, pp 705–716 | Cite as

Crown-of-thorns starfish predation and physical injuries promote brown band disease on corals

  • Sefano M. Katz
  • F. Joseph Pollock
  • David G. Bourne
  • Bette L. Willis


Brown band (BrB) disease manifests on corals as a ciliate-dominated lesion that typically progresses rapidly causing extensive mortality, but it is unclear whether the dominant ciliate Porpostoma guamense is a primary or an opportunistic pathogen, the latter taking advantage of compromised coral tissue or depressed host resistance. In this study, manipulative aquarium-based experiments were used to investigate the role of P. guamense as a pathogen when inoculated onto fragments of the coral Acropora hyacinthus that were either healthy, preyed on by Acanthaster planci (crown-of-thorns starfish; COTS), or experimentally injured. Following ciliate inoculation, BrB lesions developed on all of COTS-predated fragments (n = 9 fragments) and progressed up to 4.6 ± 0.3 cm d−1, resulting in ~70 % of coral tissue loss after 4 d. Similarly, BrB lesions developed rapidly on experimentally injured corals and ~38 % of coral tissue area was lost 60 h after inoculation. In contrast, no BrB lesions were observed on healthy corals following experimental inoculations. A choice experiment demonstrated that ciliates are strongly attracted to physically injured corals, with over 55 % of inoculated ciliates migrating to injured corals and forming distinct lesions, whereas ciliates did not migrate to healthy corals. Our results indicate that ciliates characteristic of BrB disease are opportunistic pathogens that rapidly migrate to and colonise compromised coral tissue, leading to rapid coral mortality, particularly following predation or injury. Predicted increases in tropical storms, cyclones, and COTS outbreaks are likely to increase the incidence of coral injury in the near future, promoting BrB disease and further contributing to declines in coral cover.


Coral disease Brown band disease Porpostoma guamense Opportunistic pathogen Crown-of-thorns starfish Injury 



The authors acknowledge Naohisa Wada, Manuela Giammusso and the staff of Orpheus Island Research Station for their technical assistance in the pilot study, and to Liam Zarri and the staff of Lizard Island Research Station for their technical and logistical support. The authors also acknowledge Jean-Baptiste Raina for his assistance with statistical analyses, and Emmanuelle Botte, Jason Doyle, Kathleen Morrow and Andrew Muirhead for their laboratory assistance and advice at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. The authors also thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments that improved the article. This work was funded by a Lizard Island Research Foundation Fellowship awarded to F.J. Pollock for study at Lizard Island Research Station, a facility of the Australian Museum, and by funding to B.L. Willis through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sefano M. Katz
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • F. Joseph Pollock
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • David G. Bourne
    • 1
  • Bette L. Willis
    • 2
  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, School of Marine and Tropical BiologyJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.AIMS@JCU, James Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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