Factors affecting tolerance to herbivory in a calcifying alga on coral reefs

Abstract

Herbivores greatly influence the productivity of algae but their impact can depend on the nuances of the timing, location, and intensity of herbivory. While plants can escape herbivory in spatial refugia, small-scale variations in habitat quality play a critical role in plant tolerance to herbivory and might generate complex trade-offs. On coral reefs, overstory branching corals provide a refuge from fish herbivory but also provide refugia for many small fish that excrete nutrients. Therefore, algae living in this habitat might also benefit from higher nutrient delivery. However, because coral branches occlude sunlight, algal growth rates might be impaired despite experiencing elevated nutrients and lower herbivory. In lab-based experiments, light, nutrients, and simulated herbivory were manipulated in summer and winter to investigate how these processes interact to influence the tolerance of herbivory in the calcifying green algae Halimeda, an important producer of reef carbonate sediments worldwide. Halimeda heteromorpha which is commonly found associated with branching corals tolerated tissue damage by increasing rates of segment production. Greater tolerance was observed at levels of light resembling those experienced under the coral’s canopy. Nutrient additions increased compensatory segment growth in winter but not summer. Levels of tolerance were seasonal and nutrient dependent. Results show that small-scale variations in habitat quality may influence tolerance to herbivory in Halimeda. This suggests that if coral habitats are degraded or lost and oceans continue to warm, a likely negative impact on Halimeda populations and its contribution to carbonate sediments could be expected if high levels of herbivory are maintained.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Heron Island Research Station (HIRS) and the Australian Coral Reef Society for funding to C.C.S and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship to P.J.M. Special thanks to C. Birrell for setting up the flume system, field assistants H. Bravo, M. Briand, D. Jackson, A. Chai and G. Bernal and to the staff of HIRS, CRE, J.C. Ortiz, Y-M. Bozec, C. Doropoulos, G. Roff, and MSEL colleagues for their helpful advice. We also thank S. Blomberg for his invaluable advice on statistics.

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Correspondence to Carolina Castro-Sanguino.

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Castro-Sanguino, C., Lovelock, C. & Mumby, P.J. Factors affecting tolerance to herbivory in a calcifying alga on coral reefs. Mar Biol 164, 37 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-016-3062-0

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Keywords

  • Compensatory growth
  • Coral habitats
  • Grazing pressure
  • Light attenuation
  • Coral structural complexity
  • Limiting resource model (LRM)
  • Carbonate production