Effects of fish predation and seaweed competition on the survival and growth of corals
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On Caribbean coral reefs, high rates of grazing by herbivorous fishes are thought to benefit corals because fishes consume competing seaweeds. We conducted field experiments in the Florida Keys, USA, to examine the effects of grazing fishes on coral/seaweed competition. Initially, fragments of Porites divaracata from an inshore habitat were transplanted into full-cage, half-cage, and no-cage treatments on a fore-reef. Within 48 h, 56% of the unprotected corals in half-cage and no-cage treatments (62 of 111) were completely consumed. Stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) were the major coral predators, with redband parrotfish (S. aurofrenatum) also commonly attacking this coral. Next, we transplanted fragments of P. porites collected from the fore-reef habitat where our caging experiments were being conducted into the three cage treatments, half in the presence of transplanted seaweeds, and half onto initially clean substrates. The corals were allowed to grow in these conditions, with concurrent development of competing seaweeds, for 14 weeks. Although seaweed cover and biomass were both significantly greater in the full-cage treatment, coral growth did not differ significantly between cage treatments even though corals placed with pre-planted seaweeds grew significantly less than corals placed on initially clean substrate. This surprising result occurred because parrotfishes not only grazed algae from accessible treatments, but also fed directly on our coral transplants. Parrotfish feeding scars were significantly more abundant on P. porites from the half and no-cage treatments than on corals in the full cages. On this Florida reef, direct fish predation on some coral species (P. divaracata) can exclude them from fore-reef areas, as has previously been shown for certain seaweeds and sponges. For other corals that live on the fore-reef (P. porites), the benefits of fishes removing seaweeds can be counterbalanced by the detrimental effects of fishes directly consuming corals.
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