MEPS 307:69-84 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps307069

Mucus trap in coral reefs: formation and temporal evolution of particle aggregates caused by coral mucus

Markus Huettel1,3,*, Christian Wild1,4, Sabine Gonelli2

1Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Celsiusstrasse 1, 28359 Bremen, Germany
2Davao del Norte State College, New Visayas, Panabo City, Davao del Norte, Philippines
3Present address: Florida State University, Department of Oceanography, West Call Street, OSB517, Tallahassee,Florida 32306-4320, USA
4Present address: UNESCO, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, 1 rue Miollis, 75015 Paris, France

ABSTRACT: Corals exude large volumes of nutrient-containing mucus when exposed to air during low spring tides, as a protective mechanism against desiccation and UV radiation. Currents and waves of the incoming flood detach the mucus from the corals, thereby increasing organic carbon and nutrient concentrations in the reef water. During transport into the reef lagoon, a large fraction of the mucus dissolves. Roller-table experiments demonstrated that this dissolved mucus leads to the formation of marine snow. The non-dissolving gel-like fraction of the mucus rapidly accumulates suspended particles from the flood water and forms in temporal sequence mucus strings, flocs, surface films, surface layers and thick mucus floats. In a platform reef in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, we characterized each of these mucus phases and observed the exponential increase of algal and bacterial cells in the ageing mucus aggregates. Within 3 hours, the dry weight of the aggregates increased 35-fold, chlorophyll a 192-fold, bacteria cell density 546-fold, C 26-fold, and N 79-fold. After waves destroy the buoyant mucus floats, the mucus aggregates release enclosed gas bubbles and quickly sink to the lagoon sediments, where they are consumed by the benthic community. This releases aggregate-bound nutrients, which fuel benthic and planktonic production in the lagoon. During ebb tide, corals filter the lagoon water and close the recycling loop. We conclude that coral mucus enhances the filtration capacity of coral reefs and fuels reef benthos, thereby increasing the import of oceanic particles and enhancing recycling in the reef ecosystem.

KEY WORDS: Mucus · Coral reefs · Nutrient recycling · Permeable sediment · Marine snow · TEP

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