Contrasting physiological plasticity in response to environmental stress within different cnidarians and their respective symbionts

Given concerns surrounding coral bleaching and ocean acidification, there is renewed interest in characterizing the physiological differences across the multiple host–algal symbiont combinations commonly found on coral reefs. Elevated temperature and CO2 were used to compare physiological responses within the scleractinian corals Montipora hirsuta (Symbiodinium C15) and Pocillopora damicornis (Symbiodinium D1), as well as the corallimorph (a non-calcifying anthozoan closely related to scleractinians) Discosoma nummiforme (Symbiodinium C3). Several physiological proxies were affected more by temperature than CO2, including photochemistry, algal number and cellular chlorophyll a. Marked differences in symbiont number, chlorophyll and volume contributed to distinctive patterns of chlorophyll absorption among these animals. In contrast, carbon fixation either did not change or increased under elevated temperature. Also, the rate of photosynthetically fixed carbon translocated to each host did not change, and the percent of carbon translocated to the host increased in the corallimorph. Comparing all data revealed a significant negative correlation between photosynthetic rate and symbiont density that corroborates previous hypotheses about carbon limitation in these symbioses. The ratio of symbiont-normalized photosynthetic rate relative to the rate of symbiont-normalized carbon translocation (P:T) was compared in these organisms as well as the anemone, Exaiptasia pallida hosting Symbiodinium minutum, and revealed a P:T close to unity (D. nummiforme) to a range of 2.0–4.5, with the lowest carbon translocation in the sea anemone. Major differences in the thermal responses across these organisms provide further evidence of a range of acclimation potential and physiological plasticity that highlights the need for continued study of these symbioses across a larger group of host taxa.

Hoadley K. D., Pettay D. T., Dodge D. & Warner M. E., 2016. Contrasting physiological plasticity in response to environmental stress within different cnidarians and their respective symbionts. Coral Reefs 35(2):529-542. Article (subscription required).


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