Physicochemical dynamics, microbial community patterns, and reef growth in coral reefs of the central Red Sea

Coral reefs in the Red Sea belong to the most diverse and productive reef ecosystems worldwide, although they are exposed to strong seasonal variability, high temperature, and high salinity. These factors are considered stressful for coral reef biota and challenge reef growth in other oceans, but coral reefs in the Red Sea thrive despite these challenges. In the central Red Sea high temperatures, high salinities, and low dissolved oxygen on the one hand reflect conditions that are predicted for ‘future oceans’ under global warming. On the other hand, alkalinity and other carbonate chemistry parameters are considered favourable for coral growth. In coral reefs of the central Red Sea, temperature and salinity follow a seasonal cycle, while chlorophyll and inorganic nutrients mostly vary spatially, and dissolved oxygen and pH fluctuate on the scale of hours to days. Within these strong environmental gradients micro- and macroscopic reef communities are dynamic and demonstrate plasticity and acclimatisation potential. Epilithic biofilm communities of bacteria and algae, crucial for the recruitment of reef-builders, undergo seasonal community shifts that are mainly driven by changes in temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. These variables are predicted to change with the progression of global environmental change and suggest an immediate effect of climate change on the microbial community composition of biofilms. Corals are so-called holobionts and associate with a variety of microbial organisms that fulfill important functions in coral health and productivity. For instance, coral-associated bacterial communities are more specific and less diverse than those of marine biofilms, and in many coral species in the central Red Sea they are dominated by bacteria from the genus Endozoicomonas. Generally, coral microbiomes align with ecological differences between reef sites. They are similar at sites where these corals are abundant and successful. Coral microbiomes reveal a measurable footprint of anthropogenic influence at polluted sites. Coral-associated communities of endosymbiotic dinoflagellates in central Red Sea corals are dominated by Symbiodinium from clade C. Some corals harbour the same specific symbiont with a high physiological plasticity throughout their distribution range, while others maintain a more flexible association with varying symbionts of high physiological specificity over depths, seasons, or reef locations. The coral-Symbiodinium endosymbiosis drives calcification of the coral skeleton, which is a key process that provides maintenance and formation of the reef framework. Calcification rates and reef growth are not higher than in other coral reef regions, despite the beneficial carbonate chemistry in the central Red Sea. This may be related to the comparatively high temperatures, as indicated by reduced summer calcification and long-term slowing of growth rates that correlate with ocean warming trends. Indeed, thermal limits of abundant coral species in the central Red Sea may have been exceeded, as evidenced by repeated mass bleaching events during previous years. Recent comprehensive baseline data from central Red Sea reefs allow for insight into coral reef functioning and for quantification of the impacts of environmental change in the region.

Roik A., Ziegler M. & Voolstra C. R., 2018. Physicochemical dynamics, microbial community patterns, and reef growth in coral reefs of the central Red Sea. In: Rasul N. & Stewart I. (Eds.), Oceanographic and Biological Aspects of the Red Sea, pp 401-418. Springer, Cham. Chapter (restricted access).

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