Competition between macroalgae and corals: effects of herbivore exclusion and increased algal biomass on coral survivorship and growth
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Recent declines in coral abundance accompanied by increases in macroalgal cover on Florida reefs highlight the importance of competition for space between these groups. This paper documents the frequency of coral–algal interactions on the Northern Florida Reef Tract and evaluates the effects of grazer exclusions and experimental algal addition on growth and tissue mortality of three coral species, Siderastreasiderea, Poritesastreoides, and Montastraeafaveolata. The frequency of interactions between corals and macroalgae was high as more than 50% of the basal perimeter of colonies was in contact with macroalgae; turf forms, Halimeda spp., and Dictyota spp. were the most common groups in contact with corals. Decreased grazing pressure resulted in significant increases in algal biomass within cages, and caged corals showed species-specific susceptibility to increased algal biomass. While no effects were detected for S. siderea, significant decreases in growth rates were documented for caged P. astreoides which had growth rates three to four times lower than uncaged colonies. When an algal addition treatment was included to duplicate maximum algal biomass levels documented for reefs in the area, colonies of P. astreoides in the algal addition treatment had growth rates up to ten times lower than uncaged colonies. High susceptibility to algal overgrowth was also found for the reef-building coral M. faveolata, which experienced significant tissue mortality under both uncaged (5.2% decrease in live tissue area per month) and caged (10.2% per month) conditions. The documented effects of increased algal biomass on coral growth and tissue mortality suggest a potential threat for the long-term survivorship and growth of corals in the Florida Reef Tract if present rates of algal growth and space utilization are maintained.
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