MEPS 281:63-77 (2004)  -  doi:10.3354/meps281063

Dynamics of a temperature-related coral disease outbreak

Ross J. Jones1,*, Jocelyn Bowyer2, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg3, Linda L. Blackall2

1Bermuda Biological Station for Research, St George’s, GE01, Bermuda 2School of Molecular and Microbial Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia 3Centre for Marine Studies, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

ABSTRACT: During the austral summer of 2001/2002, a coral epizootic occurred almost simultaneously with a bleaching event on the fringing reefs of Magnetic Island (Great Barrier Reef region), Australia. This resulted in a 3- to 4-fold increase in the mean percentage of partial mortality rate in a population of the hard coral Montipora aequituberculata. The putative disease state, ‘atramentous necrosis’, was observed on both bleached and normally-pigmented M. aequituberculata, and presented blackened lesions that spread within days across the colony surface and throughout the population. Diseased portions of the corals were only visible for 3 to 4 wk, with diseased tissues becoming covered in sediment and algae, which rapidly obscured evidence of the outbreak. Diseased colonies were again observed in the summer of 2002/2003 after being absent over the 2002 winter. Analysis of when diseased and bleached corals were first observed, and when and where the mortality occurred on individual colonies, indicated virtually all the mortality over the summer could be attributed to the disease and not to the bleaching. Fluorescence in situ hybridisation (FISH) techniques and cloning, and analysis of the 16S rRNA genes from diseased coral tissue, identified a mixed microbial assemblage in the diseased tissues particularly within the Alphaproteobacteria, Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. While it is not possible in this study to distinguish between a disease-causing microbial community versus secondary invaders, the bacterial 16S rDNA sequences identified within the blackened lesions demonstrated high similarity to sequences from black band disease and white plague infected corals, suggesting either common aetiological agents or development of a bacterial community that is specific to degrading coral tissues. Temperature-induced coral disease outbreaks, with the potential for elevated levels of mortality, may represent an added problem for corals during the warmer summer months and an added dimension to predicted increases in water temperature from climate change.

KEY WORDS: Coral bleaching · Black band disease · Atramentous necrosis · Great Barrier Reef

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