Combined effects of ocean acidification with morphology, water flow, and algal acclimation on metabolic rates of tropical coralline algae

Coral reefs are currently facing multiple stressors that threaten their health and function, including ocean acidification (OA). OA has been shown to negatively affect many reef calcifiers, such as coralline algae that provide many critical contributions to reef systems. Past studies have focused on how OA independently influences coralline algae, but more research is necessary as it is expected that the effects of OA on coralline algae will vary depending on many other factors. To better understand how algal morphology, water flow, and algal acclimation interact with OA to affect coralline algae, three studies were conducted in Moorea, French Polynesia, from June 2015 to July 2016. In January 2016, I tested the hypothesis that algal individuals with higher morphological complexity would exhibit faster metabolic rates under ambient pCO2 conditions, but would also demonstrate higher sensitivity to OA conditions. For three species of crustose coralline algae, Lithophyllum kotschyanum, Neogoniolithon frutescens, and Hydrolithon reinboldii, algal individuals with more complex morphologies demonstrated faster rates of calcification, photosynthesis, and respiration in the ambient pCO2 treatment than individuals with simpler morphological forms. There also appeared to be a relationship between morphology and sensitivity to OA conditions, with calcification rates negatively correlated with higher morphological complexity. In the summers of 2015 and 2016, I conducted three experiments examining the effects of water flow and OA on different morphologies of coralline algae to test the hypotheses that increased flow would enhance metabolic rates and mitigate the effects of OA, and that algae with more complex morphologies would be more responsive to increased water flow and more sensitive to OA conditions. A field experiment investigating the effects of water flow on Amphiroa fragilissima, L. kotschyanum, N. frutescens, and H. reinboldii detected enhanced rates of calcification, photosynthesis, and respiration with increased flow, and this relationship appeared to be the strongest for the crustose algal species with the highest structural complexity. A flume manipulation examining the combined effects of water flow and OA on A. fragilissima, L. kotschyanum, N. frutescens, H. reinboldii, and Porolithon onkodes suggested that coralline algal species with high structural complexity were the most sensitive to OA conditions. Finally, A. fragilissima and L. kotschyanum were maintained in different pCO2 and water flow conditions in a long-term mesocosm experiment, which indicated that flow was unable to mitigate the effects of OA on coralline algae. In the summer of 2016, I investigated the acclimation potential of A. fragilissima and L. kotschyanum to OA, and predicted that the original treatment conditions would induce phenotypic modifications that would influence algal responses to the end treatment. There were negative effects of long-term exposure of coralline algae to elevated pCO2 conditions on calcification and photosynthesis, though partial acclimation in calcification to OA was observed. The instantaneous exposure of elevated pCO2 had negative impacts on algal calcification, but had a nominal effect on photosynthesis. No effects of long-term or instantaneous exposure to elevated pCO2 were observed for respiration. The results of these studies indicate that the coralline algal response to OA conditions will likely be complex and depend on numerous factors including water flow, morphology, and acclimation potential. Therefore, it is critical that future studies further investigate the effects of these factors; specifically examining the mechanisms that underlie these responses in order to better predict the future of coralline algae and thus coral reef ecosystems in a more acidic ocean.

Merolla S., 2017. Combined effects of ocean acidification with morphology, water flow, and algal acclimation on metabolic rates of tropical coralline algae. MSc Thesis, California State University, Northridge, 118 p. Thesis (limited access).

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