Spongivory on Caribbean reefs releases corals from competition with sponges
Competition for space is an important process on tropical coral reefs. Few studies have examined the role sponges play in community structure despite the fact that many sponges are competitively superior to reef-building corals in space acquisition. Surveys conducted throughout the Florida Keys indicated that Chondrilla nucula was involved in about 30% of all coral-sponge interactions; this sponge has also been observed in 40–50% of coral-sponge interactions on other Caribbean reefs. C. nucula is also the top prey item of the Hawksbill turtle, and among the preferred prey of several spongivorous fish. I examined how predation influenced sponge competitive abilities (particularly those of C. nucula), and whether this type of indirect effect had important consequences for community dynamics in the Florida Keys. Exclusion of sponge predators (primarily angelfish) resulted in increased sponge overgrowth, with a subsequent greater loss of coral cover, compared to uncaged pairwise interactions. When caged, the corals Dichocoenia stokesii and Siderastrea sideraea lost significantly greater surface area and number of polyps to the sponge C. nucula compared to uncaged interactions. For caged interactions involving the sponge Ectyoplasia ferox, there was a trend for greater loss of S. sideraea surface area and polyps compared to uncaged interactions. Predation had a greater affect on C. nucula than on any of the other sponges examined. Predator exclusion experiments performed with naturally occurring coral-sponge interactions demonstrated a significant decrease in total coral cover compared to uncaged controls. It is proposed that indirect effects arising from spongivory (especially consumption of C. nucula) may have large community consequences. Species diversity on Caribbean reefs may be maintained, at least in part, by spongivores.
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