Kira E. Turnham, Matthew D. Aschaffenburg, D. Tye Pettay, David A. Paz-García, Héctor Reyes-Bonilla, Jorge Pinzón, Ellie Timmins, Robin T. Smith, Michael P. McGinley, Mark E. Warner, Todd C. LaJeunesse

High physiological function for corals with thermally tolerant, host-adapted symbionts

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Medicine

The flexibility to associate with more than one symbiont may considerably expand a host's niche breadth. Coral animals and dinoflagellate micro-algae represent one of the most functionally integrated and widespread mutualisms between two eukaryotic partners. Symbiont identity greatly affects a coral's ability to cope with extremes in temperature and light. Over its broad distribution across the Eastern Pacific, the ecologically dominant branching coral, Pocillopora grandis , depends on mutualisms with the dinoflagellates Durusdinium glynnii and Cladocopium latusorum . Measurements of skeletal growth, calcification rates, total mass increase, calyx dimensions, reproductive output and response to thermal stress were used to assess the functional performance of these partner combinations. The results show both host–symbiont combinations displayed similar phenotypes; however, significant functional differences emerged when exposed to increased temperatures. Negligible physiological differences in colonies hosting the more thermally tolerant D. glynnii refute the prevailing view that these mutualisms have considerable growth tradeoffs. Well beyond the Eastern Pacific, pocilloporid colonies with D. glynnii are found across the Pacific in warm, environmentally variable, near shore lagoonal habitats. While rising ocean temperatures threaten the persistence of contemporary coral reefs, lessons from the Eastern Pacific indicate that co-evolved thermally tolerant host–symbiont combinations are likely to expand ecologically and spread geographically to dominate reef ecosystems in the future.

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