Variability in the Effects of Macroalgae on the Survival and Growth of Corals: The Consumer Connection

Shifts in dominance from corals to macroalgae are occurring in many coral reefs worldwide. Macroalgal canopies, while competing for space with coral colonies, may also form a barrier to herbivorous and corallivorous fish, offering protection to corals. Thus, corals could either suffer from enhanced competition with canopy-forming and understorey macroalgae or benefit from predator exclusion. Here, we tested the hypothesis that the effects of the brown, canopy-forming macroalga, Turbinaria ornata, on the survival and growth of corals can vary according to its cover, to the presence or absence of herbivorous and corallivorous fish and to the morphological types of corals. Over a period of 66 days, two coral species differing in growth form, Acropora pulchra and Porites rus, were exposed to three different covers of T. ornata (absent versus medium versus high), in the presence or absence of fish. Irrespective of the cover of T. ornata, fish exclusion reduced mortality rates of A. pulchra. Following fish exclusion, a high cover of T. ornata depressed the growth of this branched coral, whilst it had no effect when fish species were present. P. rus suffered no damage from corallivorous fish, but its growth was decreased by high covers of T. ornata, irrespective of the presence or absence of fish. These results show that negative effects of T. ornata on some coral species are subordinate to those of fish predation and are, therefore, likely to manifest only on reefs severely depleted of predators. In contrast, space dominance by T. ornata may decrease the growth of other coral species regardless of predation intensity. In general, this study shows that susceptibility to predation may determine the severity of the effects of canopy-forming macroalgae on coral growth.