Chemically mediated competition, herbivory, and the structure of coral reefs
Rasher, Douglas B.
MetadataShow full item record
Corals, the foundation species of tropical reefs, are in rapid global decline as a result of anthropogenic disturbance. On many reefs, losses of coral have coincided with the over-harvesting of reef herbivores, resulting in ecosystem phase-shifts from coral to macroalgal dominance. It is hypothesized that abundant macroalgae inhibit coral recovery and recruitment, thereby generating ecological feedback processes that reinforce phase-shifts to macroalgae and further diminish reef function. Notwithstanding, the extent to which macroalgae directly outcompete coral, the mechanisms involved, and the species-specificity of algal-coral competition remains debated. Moreover the capacity for herbivores to prevent vs. reverse ecosystem phase-shifts to macroalgae and the roles of herbivore diversity in such phenomena remain poorly understood. Here I demonstrate with a series of field experiments in the tropical Pacific and Caribbean Sea that multiple macroalgae common to degraded reefs directly outcompete coral using chemical warfare, that these interactions are mediated by hydrophobic secondary metabolites transferred from algal to coral surfaces by direct contact, and that the outcomes of these allelopathic interactions are highly species-specific. Using field observations and experiments in the tropical Pacific, I also demonstrate that the process of herbivory attenuates the competitive effects of allelopathic algae on corals by controlling succession of algal communities, and that the herbivore species responsible for macroalgal removal possess complementary tolerances to the diversity of chemical defenses deployed among algae, creating an essential role for herbivore diversity in reversing ecosystem phase-shifts to macroalgae. Lastly, I demonstrate with field experiments in the tropical Pacific that algal-coral competition simultaneously induces allelochemicals and suppresses anti-herbivore deterrents in some algae, likely due to trade-offs in the productions of defense metabolites with differing ecological functions. Together, these studies provide strong evidence that chemically mediated competitive and consumer-prey interactions play principal roles in coral reef degradation and recovery, and should provide resource managers with vital information needed for effective management of these ecologically and economically important but threatened ecosystems.