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Interspecies and spatial diversity in the symbiotic zooxanthellae density in corals from northern South China Sea and its relationship to coral reef bleaching


Coral reef bleaching is usually characterized by expulsion of symbiotic zooxanthellae, loss of zooxanthellae pigmentation, or both. We collected 128 samples comprising 39 species of 21 genera of reef-building corals from Luhuitou and Xiaodonghai in Sanya of Hainan Island and Daya Bay of Guangdong Province, respectively, and analyzed the symbiotic zooxanthellae population density. The results show that: (1) the symbiotic zooxanthella density varies from 0.67×106 to 8.48×106 cell/cm2, displaying significant interspecies variability, with branch corals usually having relatively less zooxanthellae (ranging from 0.67×106 to 2.47×106 cell/cm2) than massive species (from 1.0×106 to 8.48×106 cell/cm2); (2) corals inhabiting within 4 m water depth have higher levels of symbiotic zooxanthellae than those living at the bottom (∼7 m depth) of the reef area; (3) there is no discernable difference in the zooxanthellae density between corals from relatively high latitude Daya Bay (∼22°N) and those from relatively low latitude Sanya (∼18°N) at comparable sea surface temperatures (SST); (4) in partially-bleached corals, the density of zooxanthellae shows the following order: healthy-looking part> semi-bleached part > bleached part. Based on the above results, we suggest that (1) the zooxanthellae density difference between branching and massive coral species is the main cause that branching corals are more vulnerable to bleaching than massive corals. For example, symbiotic zooxanthellae levels are low in branching Acropora and Pocillopora corals and thus these corals are more susceptible to bleaching and mortality; (2) symbiotic zooxanthellae density can also be affected by environmental conditions, such as sediment loads, diving-related turbidity, and aquaculture-related nitrate and phosphate input, and their increase may reduce symbiotic zooxanthellae density in corals.

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Author information

Correspondence to KeFu Yu.

Additional information

Supported by the Knowledge Innovation Project of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. KZCX2-YW-318), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 40572102), the Ministry of Science and Technology of China (Grant No. 2006BAB19B03), and the Sino-Australia Special Collaboration Funds (Grant Nos. 4061120030 and CH050099)

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Li, S., Yu, K., Shi, Q. et al. Interspecies and spatial diversity in the symbiotic zooxanthellae density in corals from northern South China Sea and its relationship to coral reef bleaching. Chin. Sci. Bull. 53, 295–303 (2008).

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  • coral reef bleaching
  • zooxanthellae density
  • interspecies diversity
  • spatial diversity
  • northern South China Sea