Short-term ocean acidification decreases pulsation and growth of the widespread soft coral Xenia umbellata

Coral reefs may experience lower pH values as a result of ocean acidification (OA), which has negative consequences, particularly for calcifying organisms. Thus far, the effects of this global factor have been mainly investigated on hard corals, while the effects on soft corals remain relatively understudied. We therefore carried out a manipulative aquarium experiment for 21 days to study the response of the widespread pulsating soft coral Xenia umbellata to simulated OA conditions. We gradually decreased the pH from ambient (~8.3) to three consecutive 7-day long pH treatments of 8.0, 7.8, and 7.6, using a CO2 dosing system. Monitored response variables included pulsation rate, specific growth rate, visual coloration, survival, Symbiodiniaceae cell densities and chlorophyll a content, photosynthesis and respiration, and finally stable isotopes of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) as well as CN content. Pulsation decreased compared to controls with each consecutive lowering of the pH, i.e., 17% at pH 8.0, 26% at pH 7.8 and 32% at pH 7.6, accompanied by an initial decrease in growth rates of ~60% at pH 8.0, not decreasing further at lower pH. An 8.3 ‰ decrease of δ13C confirmed that OA exposed colonies had a higher uptake and availability of atmospheric CO2. Coral productivity, i.e., photosynthesis, was not affected by higher dissolved inorganic C availability and none of the remaining response variables showed any significant differences. Our findings suggest that pulsation is a phenotypically plastic mechanism for Xumbellata to adjust to different pH values, resulting in reduced growth rates only, while maintaining high productivity. Consequently, pulsation may allow Xumbellata to inhabit a broad pH range with minimal effects on its overall health. This resilience may contribute to the competitive advantage that soft corals, particularly Xumbellata, have over hard corals.

Tilstra A., Braxator L., Thobor B., Mezger S. D., Hill C. E. L, El-Khaled Y. C., Carporale G., Kim S. & Wild C., 2023. Short-term ocean acidification decreases pulsation and growth of the widespread soft coral Xenia umbellata. PLoS ONE 18(11): e0294470. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0294470. Article.

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