An outbreak of sea cucumbers hinders coral recruitment


An outbreak of a small sessile sea cucumber, Ocnus sanya, occurred on the degraded Luhuitou coral reef in Sanya Bay, Hainan, China. This study explored the pattern of distribution of O. sanya on the reef and the impacts of the high abundance of O. sanya on post-settlement mortality of Pocillopora damicornis recruits. The density of O. sanya ranged from about 500 to over 2000 individuals m−2 with 10.95–23.69% cover on hard substrate. Terracotta tiles with O. sanya on the surface accumulated 19.7% more surface sediment than those without sea cucumbers. Post-settlement P. damicornis recruits had significantly higher mortality on terracotta tiles with O. sanya than those without O. sanya after 21 d. Overall, O. sanya appears to increase sediment stress and inhibit coral recruitment, exacerbating the degradation of Luhuitou Reef. This study raises the possibility that such novel outbreak species could contribute significant additional stress on coral reefs at larger scales.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


  1. Arévalo R, Pinedo S, Ballesteros E (2007) Changes in the composition and structure of Mediterranean rocky-shore communities following a gradient of nutrient enrichment: descriptive study and test of proposed methods to assess water quality regarding macroalgae. Mar Pollut Bull 55:104–113

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Bailey SA (2015) An overview of thirty years of research on ballast water as a vector for aquatic invasive species to freshwater and marine environments. Aquat Ecosyst Health 18:261–268

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Bellwood DR, Hughes TP, Folke C, Nystrom M (2004) Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429:827–833

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Birrell CL, McCook LJ, Willis BL, Diaz-Pulido GA (2008) Effects of benthic algae on the replenishment of corals and the implications for the resilience of coral reefs. Oceanogr Mar Biol Annu Rev 46:25–63

    Google Scholar 

  5. Cao D, Cao WZ, Liang Y, Huang Z (2016) Nutrient variations and isotopic evidences of particulate organic matter provenance in fringing reefs, South China. Sci Total Environ 566:378–386

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Chui PYA, Ang PO (2010) Massive overgrowth of coral recruits by barnacles in winter low-temperature conditions, Hong Kong, China. Coral Reefs 29:1017

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Eckert GL (2007) Spatial patchiness in the sea cucumber Pachythyone rubra in the California Channel Islands. J Exp Mar Bio Ecol 348:121–132

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Fabricius KE (2005) Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis. Mar Pollut Bull 50:125–146

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Gómez JA, Nearing MA (2005) Runoff and sediment losses from rough and smooth soil surfaces in a laboratory experiment. Catena 59:253–266

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Huang H, Li XB, Yang JH, Lian JS, Huang LM (2009) An outbreak of the colonial sand tube worm, Phragmatopoma sp. threatens the survival of scleractinian corals. Zoological Studies 48:106

    Google Scholar 

  11. Hume BCC, D’Angelo C, Cunnington A, Smith EG, Wiedenmann J (2014) The corallivorous flatworm Amakusaplana acroporae: an invasive species threat to coral reefs? Coral Reefs 33:267–272

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kohler EK, Gill SM (2006) Coral Point Count with Excel extensions (CPCe): a Visual Basic program for the determination of coral and substrate coverage using random point count methodology. Comput Geosci 32:1259–1269

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Li XB (2011) Identification of major factors influencing the composition, spatial and temporal variation of scleractinian coral community in Sanya, China. Ph.D. thesis, Chinese Academy of Sciences

  14. McCook LJ, Folke C, Hughes T, Nyström M, Obura D, Salm R (2007) Ecological resilience, climate change and the Great Barrier Reef. In: Johnson JE, Marshall PA (eds) Climate change and the Great Barrier Reef, a vulnerability assessment. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Australian Greenhouse Office, Australia, pp 75–96

  15. Perez K, Rodgers KS, Jokiel PL, Lager CV, Lager DJ (2014) Effects of terrigenous sediment on settlement and survival of the reef coral Pocillopora damicornis. PeerJ 2:e387

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  16. Rodgers SA, Bingham BL (1996) Subtidal zonation of the holothurian Cucumaria lubrica (Clark). J Exp Mar Bio Ecol 204:113–129

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Rogers CS (1990) Responses of coral reefs and reef organisms to sedimentation. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 62:185–202

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Tkachenko KS, Britayev TA, Huan NH, Pereladov MV, Latypov YY (2016) Influence of anthropogenic pressure and seasonal upwelling on coral reefs in Nha Trang Bay (Central Vietnam). Mar Ecol 37:1131–1146

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Yeemin T, Pengsakun S, Yucharoen M, Klinthong W, Sangmanee K, Sutthacheep M (2013) Long-term changes in coral communities under stress from sediment. Deep Sea Res Part 2 Top Stud Oceanogr 96:32–40

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. You F, Huang H, Zhang Y (2013) The description of a new cucumariid species from Hainan Island and preliminary study of phylogenetic relation. Chin Sci Bull 58:1604–1609

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Zhang YY, Huang H, Huang JY (2014) A sea cucumber outbreak on a degraded coral reef in Sanya, China. Coral Reefs 33:1077

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Zhao MX, Yu KF, Zhang QM, Qi S (2009) Evolution and its environmental significance of coral diversity on Luhuitou fringing reef, Sanya. Marine Environmental Science 28:125–130

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This study was funded by the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDA13020201), the National Nature Science Foundation of China (41676150 and 31370499), Science and Technology Service Network Initiative (KFJ-EW-STS-123), Science and technology Planning Project of Guangdong Province, China (2014B030301064). L. J. McCook was supported by a President’s International Visiting Expert Professorial Fellowship from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2016VEA025). We are grateful to reviewers for their valuable and constructive comments that vastly improved the manuscript. On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hui Huang.

Additional information

Communicated by Biology Editor Dr. Mark R. Patterson

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zhang, Y., McCook, L., Jiang, L. et al. An outbreak of sea cucumbers hinders coral recruitment. Coral Reefs 37, 321–326 (2018).

Download citation


  • Sea cucumber outbreak
  • Ocnus sanya
  • Pocillopora damicornis
  • Coral recruitment
  • Luhuitou Reef China
  • Coral reef degradation