Indirect effects of ocean warming and acidification on the realized recruitment of Agaricia agaricites

Over the past few decades, coral cover has declined worldwide due to overfishing, disease, and storms, and these effects have been exacerbated by ocean warming and acidification. Corals are extremely susceptible to these changes because they are already living close to their thermal and aragonite saturation thresholds. Ocean warming and acidification (OAW) may also impact coral survival and growth by impacting their settlement cues. Coral larvae use crustose coralline algae (CCA) and their associated biofilms as cues for settlement, i.e., habitat selection. Settlement cues can also be negatively affected by increased water temperature and acidity. It was hypothesized that the impacts of OAW on settlement substrate can further threaten coral persistence by altering/inhibiting larval settlement and potentially decreasing the post-settlement survival and growth of coral recruits. In this study, we 1) assessed the effect of substrate quality (substrate conditioned in ambient or OAW conditions) on settlement of A. agaricites larvae, 2) determined the effect of substrate quality on post-settlement survival and growth of A. agaricites recruits, and 3) determined the effect of ocean warming and acidification on the post-settlement survival and growth of A. agaricites recruits. Aragonite settlement tiles were placed offshore for one month to accrue CCA and associated biofilms, and were then conditioned in either ambient (29°C, 8.2 pH) or predicted future oceanic conditions (31°C, 7.9 pH) conditions for 7 – 10 days. Agaricia agaricites larvae were then introduced to the settlement tiles, and their settlement percentage was calculated. Once a week for 12 weeks after larval settlement, the size, survival, and pigmentation of A. agaricites recruits was recorded. Larvae settled marginally more on optimally conditioned tiles than on tiles previously exposed to OAW conditions (p=0.053). The survival of coral recruits in OAW conditions was greatly reduced, their growth was very limited, and they became paler over time. When reared in ambient conditions, recruits on OAW treated substrate initially displayed higher survival rates than recruits on ambient treated substrate. After 3 weeks in ambient conditions, however, survival rates were similar for recruits on ambient and OAW treated substrate; their growth curves were very similar, and coral recruits became more pigmented over time. Ocean warming and acidification conditions not only directly impacted the growth, survival, and pigmentation of A. agaricites recruits, but it also indirectly affected larval 5 settlement by likely altering microbial composition in bacterial biofilms on the settlement tiles. These results indicate that future conditions of ocean warming and acidification can be deleterious for A. agaricites, particularly after settlement. If the early life stages of scleractinian corals are negatively affected by OAW conditions, successful recruitment throughout the Caribbean and Florida Reef Tract could decrease. As a result, recovery from disturbances could be hindered, thus compromising the sustainability of many coral species and other marine ecosystems that depend on coral reefs for protection, habitat, and food.

Anderson A., 2018. Indirect effects of ocean warming and acidification on the realized recruitment of Agaricia agaricites. MSc thesis, Nova Southeastern University. Article.

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