MEPS 278:103-114 (2004)  -  doi:10.3354/meps278103

Coral defence against macroalgae: differential effects of mesenterial filaments on the green alga Halimeda opuntia

Maggy M. Nugues1,3,*, L. Delvoye2, Rolf P. M. Bak1,2

1Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), PO Box 59, 1790 AB Den Burg, Texel, The Netherlands
2University of Amsterdam, IBED, PO Box 94766, 1090 GT, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
3Present address: Center for Marine Science, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 5600 Marvin K. Moss Lane, Wilmington 28409-5928, North Carolina, USA

ABSTRACT: Several studies have shown that the growth of macroalgae is reduced when in contact with corals, but very few have addressed the mechanisms involved. This study provides for the first time an explicative mechanism for the inhibition of algal growth by scleractinian corals. In experimental field contacts between 8 species of scleractinian corals and the green alga Halimeda opuntia, corals extruded their mesenterial filaments (MFs) onto the plant. In some coral species, this extrusion was followed by persistent discolouration of the contacting algal segments. Microscopic examination of these segments revealed migration of chloroplasts away from the surface of segments, as well as the presence of nematocysts from the MFs fired into the algal epidermis. There was a significant relationship between the extent of algal discolouration and both the occurrence and length of the MFs, potentially explaining differences among coral species in their ability to damage algal segments. MF extrusion also occurred in experimental contacts with 2 other species of macroalgae (Lobophora variegata and Dictyota sp.). The use of extruded MFs by scleractinian corals against macroalgae is similar to their aggressive behaviour against other scleractinian coral species. However, the ranking of competitive ability against H. opuntia (measured by the extent of algal discolouration) differed from that established in interspecific aggressions among corals. The great abundance and wide distribution of the species of corals and macroalgae used in this study, together with observations of MFs in natural interactions, suggest that the use of MFs is a common and widespread mechanism of interaction between corals and macroalgae. We conclude that coral-algal competition involves complex mechanisms and is therefore likely to represent a complex hierarchical structure, in which macroalgae are not always able to overgrow and kill corals.

KEY WORDS: Coral-algal competition · Defence mechanisms · Algae · Coral · Competition · Scleractinian · Caribbean

Full text in pdf format