Lettuce corals overgrowing tube sponges at St. Eustatius, Dutch Caribbean
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Sponges and corals are well-known competitors for space on coral reefs. Only a few documented observations are known of sponge-coral interactions in which the latter dominate the former. In the Caribbean, reef-dwelling sponges are generally abundant and have a reputation of being aggressive competitors for space. The present study is exceptional, because it reports on corals overgrowing sponges.
KeywordsCompetition for space Coral reefs Interspecific dominance Sponge-coral interactions
Within Caribbean coral reef ecosystems, interactions between corals and sponges are well documented, usually with sponges outcompeting corals in direct competition for growth space (Aerts and Van Soest 1997). Some of these sponges are able to produce toxic compounds that may harm and kill scleractinian corals, as demonstrated in interactions between the liver sponge Plakortis halichondrioides (Wilson, 1902) and the lettuce coral Agaricia lamarcki (Milne Edwards and Haime, 1851) (Porter and Targett 1988). Other Caribbean sponges may harm corals by overgrowing them (Loh et al. 2015) or by excavating their skeleton (López-Victoria et al. 2006). Documented examples of sponges becoming partly or completely submissive to corals are exceptional. These are known, for instance, from the Indo-Pacific, involving fast-growing encrusting parts of foliaceous Montipora corals (Elliott et al. 2015) and free-living corals that have dropped and settled on phototrophic sponges (Hoeksema et al. 2014).
The ability of agariciid corals to overgrow chemically defended sponges is worth pursuing. Additional field studies in other Caribbean reefs are needed to confirm whether such interactions are more common than presently assumed.
Fieldwork participation of the first author was funded through a Martin Fellowship from Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Logistic support was provided by St. Eustatius Marine Parks (STENAPA), Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute (CNSI) and Scubaqua Dive Center. We are grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.
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