Effects of macroalgal versus coral reef dominance on coral survival, chemical defense, and microbiomes
Beatty, Deanna S.
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Coral reefs are among the earth’s most biodiverse and productive ecosystems, but are undergoing precipitous decline due to coral bleaching and disease following thermal stress events, which are increasing in frequency and spatial scale. These effects are exacerbated by local stressors such as overfishing and pollution, collectively causing an increasing number of reefs to shift from coral to macroalgal dominance. These stressors can harm or kill corals through diverse mechanisms, including alterations in how corals interact with microorganisms. By employing a variety of field sampling and field experimental approaches, I investigated consequences of local protection from fishing and coral versus macroalgal dominance of the benthos on coral survival, chemical defense, and microbiomes within paired algal dominated fished areas and coral dominated marine protected areas (MPAs) in Fiji. I demonstrate that i) coral larvae from a macroalgal dominated area exhibited higher pre-settlement mortality and reduced settlement compared to those from a coral dominated area, ii) juveniles planted into a coral dominated MPA survived better than those planted into a macroalgal dominated fished area and differential survival depended on whether macroalgae were immediately adjacent to juvenile coral, iii) corals possess chemical defenses toward the thermally-regulated coral bleaching pathogen Vibrio coralliilyticus, but this defense is compromised by elevated temperature, iv) for a bleaching susceptible but ecologically important acroporid coral, anti-pathogen chemical defense is compromised when coral resides within macroalgal dominated reefs and this effect can be influenced by both the current and historic state of the reef. Effects on coral survival and chemical defense for individuals residing within coral versus macroalgal dominated areas largely coincided with nuanced differences in coral microbiomes (e.g., in microbiome variability and specific indicator bacterial taxa) but not with major shifts in microbiome composition. These findings have implications for reef conservation and for understanding how coral-microbe interactions will respond to the pressures of global change.