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The role of algal chemical defenses in the feeding preferences of the long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum

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The 1983 die-off of the long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum was linked to dramatic increases in macroalgal biomass and abundance on Caribbean coral reefs. D. antillarum densities have only recently begun to recover, and on some reefs this has led to a decrease in algae and an increase in coral recruits. Given the historic importance of this herbivore and the patchiness of its distribution on modern Caribbean reefs, a better understanding of its feeding preferences for different macroalgae is fundamental to reef ecology and management. This study investigated the feeding preferences of D. antillarum for different macroalgae and benthic cyanobacteria that were most common at our study sites on reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands, although most of these algae occur throughout the Caribbean. Many of these algae are chemically rich, and some are known to be chemically defended against generalist grazers. Previous studies have suggested that D. antillarum has a greater capacity than herbivorous fishes and other herbivores to consume chemically defended algae. However, in this series of experiments, D. antillarum was more selective than expected in its food choices and avoided eating some macroalgae and cyanobacteria commonly found on shallow reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Types of algae and their chemical extracts that deterred feeding include common brown algae (Dictyota and Lobophora spp.) and cyanobacteria (Dichothrix sp.). These feeding preferences have implications for coral reef ecosystems because some macroalgae and cyanobacteria can have negative effects on the survival of other organisms on reefs, including corals.

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Funding for this study was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), via Cooperative Agreement No. 07ERAG0079, with a grant from the USGS Eastern Region State Partnership Program awarded to VJP, Ilsa Kuffner, Linda Walters, and Teresa Turner. We thank the other PIs of this grant for their assistance throughout this project. VJP received additional support from the Smithsonian Hunterdon Oceanographic Fund. Algae were collected in St. Thomas under permit by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Division of Fish and Wildlife, which permitted scientific collections (STT-034–08 and STT-041–09 to Dr. Teresa Turner). Collections in St. John were made under National Park Service Permit, Virgin Islands National Park #VIIS-2008-SCI-0012 and #VIIS-2009-SCI-0017 to Dr. Ilsa Kuffner. We thank Teresa Turner, Ilsa Kuffner and Raphael Ritson-Williams for assistance collecting algae, Jonathan Craft for assistance collecting sea urchins and conducting feeding assays, and Dr. Sarath Gunasekera for help with extraction and chemical separations of Dichothrix sp. Raphael Ritson-Williams, Chivas Owle and Victoria Pittman assisted with the extraction of the algae. This is Smithsonian Marine Station contribution #1162.


U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), via Cooperative Agreement No. 07ERAG0079, with a grant from the USGS Eastern Region State Partnership Program awarded to VJP, I. Kuffner, L. Walters, and T. Turner. Additional support provided by the Smithsonian Hunterdon Oceanographic Fund.

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VJP conceptualized and supervised the study. LJS, SJH, and VJP contributed to the data collection and analysis of the feeding experiments. JMD and NG conducted LC–MS and metabolomics analysis. The first draft of the manuscript was written by LJS and all authors edited subsequent versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Valerie J. Paul.

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None required. All permits were in place to conduct scientific research in the USVI and Virgin Islands National Park.

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Spiers, L.J., Harrison, S.J., Deutsch, J.M. et al. The role of algal chemical defenses in the feeding preferences of the long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum. Aquat Ecol 55, 941–953 (2021).

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