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Three competitors in three dimensions: photogrammetry reveals rapid overgrowth of coral during multispecies competition with sponges and algae

Lauren K. Olinger*, Andia Chaves-Fonnegra, Ian C. Enochs, Marilyn E. Brandt

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ABSTRACT: Competition for limited space is an important driver of benthic community structure on coral reefs. Studies of coral-algae and coral-sponge interactions often show competitive dominance of algae and sponges over corals, but little is known about the outcomes when these groups compete in a multispecies context. Multispecies competition is increasingly common on Caribbean coral reefs as environmental degradation drives loss of reef-building corals and proliferation of alternative organisms such as algae and sponges. New methods are needed to understand multispecies competition, whose outcomes can differ widely from pairwise competition and range from coexistence to exclusion. In this study, we used 3D photogrammetry and image analyses to compare pairwise and multispecies competition on reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sponges (Desmapsamma anchorata, Aplysina cauliformis) and macroalgae (Lobophora variegata) were attached to coral (Porites astreoides) and arranged to simulate multispecies (coral-sponge-algae) and pairwise (coral-sponge, coral-algae) competition. Photogrammetric 3D models were produced to measure surface area change of coral and sponge, and photographs were analysed to measure sponge-coral, algae-coral, and algae-sponge overgrowth. Coral lost more surface area and was overgrown more rapidly by the sponge D. anchorata in multispecies treatments, when the sponge was also in contact with algae. Algae contact may confer a competitive advantage to the sponge D. anchorata, but not A. cauliformis, underscoring the species-specificity of these interactions. This first application of photogrammetry to study competition showed meaningful losses of living coral that, combined with significant overgrowths by competitors detected from image analyses, exposed a novel outcome of multispecies competition.