DNA metabarcoding to examine the biodiversity of coral reef cryptobiota

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse, complex, and productive of ecosystems. The vast majority of coral reef biodiversity is made up of the small and cryptic organisms living unseen by most within the reef matrix. This hidden community, the cryptobiota, are a critical component of coral reef trophic dynamics and play an essential role in nutrient recycling that enable reefs to thrive in oligotrophic environments. Despite their ecological importance, the cryptobiota are often ignored because they live deep within the reef matrix and require significant taxonomic expertise and time to collect and identify. As a result, our perceptions of coral reef biodiversity across marine gradients and how it will respond to climatic change is based on observable surface-dwelling taxa, such as corals and fish. Using DNA metabarcoding technology, this research fills an extensive knowledge gap about the diversity and distribution of the important and understudied coral reef cryptobiota community. The objectives of this dissertation were to (i) evaluate metabarcoding performance on marine sponges, a prominent and ecologically vital member of the cryptobenthos that is one of the most difficult metazoans to identify to species using both taxonomic and molecular methods; (ii) investigate the individual and combined effects of ocean warming and acidification on cryptobiota biodiversity; and (iii) examine cryptobiota diversity along the most striking macrospatial diversity gradient in the marine tropics. Contrary to expectations, this research (i) demonstrated that the metabarcoding approach performs much better than expected in capturing sponge richness; (ii) discovered that diversity shuffles but does not decline under the combined stressors of ocean warming and acidification; and (iii) cryptobiotic diversity undermines the tropical Pacific longitudinal diversity gradient defined by corals and fish. These results contribute towards reshaping the way we consider coral reef biodiversity under different oceanographic, geographic and climatic regimes.

Timmers M. A., 2021. DNA metabarcoding to examine the biodiversity of coral reef cryptobiota. PhD thesis, University of Hawai’i, 147 p. Thesis.

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