Effect of ocean acidification on the ecology of two tropical crustose coralline algae (phylum Rhodophyta)

Crustose coralline algae (CCA) are important members of coral reef communities. They accrete and consolidate the calcium carbonate framework of coral reefs, and some species are an important settlement substratum for coral larvae. CCA community composition is shaped, at least in part, by herbivory and competition. However, ocean acidification (OA) is negatively affecting CCA, with potential to affect CCA responses to herbivory (wounding) and their ability to compete for space. Changes in seawater chemistry because of OA cause reductions in the recruitment, abundance, and net calcification of CCA. In this thesis, the effects of OA on net calcification, regeneration of wounds, and competition was quantified for two species of CCA common in the back reefs of Mo’orea, French Polynesia; Porolithon onkodes and Lithophyllum insipidum. Three separate experiments were conducted in four flowing seawater tanks (flumes), each set to a different target pCO2 level representative of ambient (~ 400 µatm) or predicted end of the 21 century pCO2 (~ 700, 1000, and 1300 µatm). P. onkodes, was found to be the most abundant species of CCA in the back reefs of Mo’orea, followed by L. flavescens and L. insipidum. The abundance of P. onkodes is likely a direct result of its competitive ability. P. onkodes is thicker on average than the other common CCA in the back reefs of Mo’orea, and thicker species generally become dominant in areas of intense herbivory, such as coral reefs. In a flume experiment conducted from January to March 2016, net calcification declined 85% in P. onkodes at elevated pCO2 compared to a decline of 42% in L. insipidum, indicating that P. onkodes may be more negatively affected by OA. The differential responses to OA found here could alter the outcome of competitive interactions between P. onkodes and L. insipidum, leading to changes in the abundances of these species in CCA communities. Few studies have quantified the potential for OA to interact with natural disturbances, such as wounding of the thallus by herbivores. A flume experiment conducted from May to July 2016 found that there was a 58% reduction in the rate of vertical regeneration of artificial wounds within P. onkodes at elevated pCO2. This result could have important implications for the response of P. onkodes to grazing by excavating herbivores like parrotfish and sea urchins. Inability for CCA to recover from wounding, could increase the susceptibility of CCA to further wounding. In addition, the reductions in vertical regeneration of the wounds could also be indicative of reduced vertical growth rates. CCA with thicker thalli generally outcompete thinner CCA. Reduced vertical growth rates could reduce thallus thickness, and affect the outcome of competitive interactions among CCA. A flume experiment conducted from June to July 2016 found that there was no effect of elevated pCO2 on the outcome of competitive interactions between P. onkodes and L. insipidum. It is likely that this result may have been due to the relatively short duration of this experiment (one month). There was, however, an effect of the identity of the competitor on the proportion of live tissue remaining in focal individuals of P. onkodes. The proportion of live tissue remaining in focal individuals of P. onkodes was significantly lower in intraspecific pairings than in interspecific pairings or when paired with non-living substrate (controls). This result highlights the importance of including both intraspecific and interspecific interactions in future studies of the effects of OA on competition. Experiments of longer durations may elucidate the potential for elevated pCO2 to affect competition among CCA. CCA are ecologically important members of coral reefs. Changes in the community composition of CCA on coral reefs, because of altered competitive abilities under elevated pCO2, could affect the roles that CCA play in building and maintain coral reef ecosystems.

Manning J., 2017. Effect of ocean acidification on the ecology of two tropical crustose coralline algae (phylum Rhodophyta). MSc thesis, California State University, Northridge, 92 p. Thesis (restricted access).

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