A connection between colony biomass and death in Caribbean reef-building corals

Academic Article


  • Increased sea-surface temperatures linked to warming climate threaten coral reef ecosystems globally. To better understand how corals and their endosymbiotic dinoflagellates (Symbiodinium spp.) respond to environmental change, tissue biomass and Symbiodinium density of seven coral species were measured on various reefs approximately every four months for up to thirteen years in the Upper Florida Keys, United States (1994-2007), eleven years in the Exuma Cays, Bahamas (1995-2006), and four years in Puerto Morelos, Mexico (2003-2007). For six out of seven coral species, tissue biomass correlated with Symbiodinium density. Within a particular coral species, tissue biomasses and Symbiodinium densities varied regionally according to the following trends: Mexico≥Florida Keys≥Bahamas. Average tissue biomasses and symbiont cell densities were generally higher in shallow habitats (1-4 m) compared to deeper-dwelling conspecifics (12-15 m). Most colonies that were sampled displayed seasonal fluctuations in biomass and endosymbiont density related to annual temperature variations. During the bleaching episodes of 1998 and 2005, five out of seven species that were exposed to unusually high temperatures exhibited significant decreases in symbiotic algae that, in certain cases, preceded further decreases in tissue biomass. Following bleaching, Montastraea spp. colonies with low relative biomass levels died, whereas colonies with higher biomass levels survived. Bleaching- or disease-associated mortality was also observed in Acropora cervicornis colonies; compared to A. palmata, all A. cervicornis colonies experienced low biomass values. Such patterns suggest that Montastraea spp. and possibly other coral species with relatively low biomass experience increased susceptibility to death following bleaching or other stressors than do conspecifics with higher tissue biomass levels. © 2011 Thornhill et al.
  • Authors

    Published In

  • PLoS ONE  Journal
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Thornhill DJ; Rotjan RD; Todd BD; Chilcoat GC; Iglesias-Prieto R; Kemp DW; LaJeunesse TC; Reynolds JMC; Schmidt GW; Shannon T
  • Volume

  • 6
  • Issue

  • 12