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Coral Feeding Ecology

Corals are both animals and plants and their symbiotic relationship is a complex process of nutrient acquisition and assimilation. See our recent publication:

Teece, M. A., Estes, B., Gelsleichter, A. and Lirman D. (2011) Heterotrophic and autotrophic assimilation of fatty acids by Scleractinian corals. Limnology and Oceanography. 56: 1285-1296 [PDF].

Our collaborative group includes Diego Lirman at RSMAS and Mary Alice Coffroth at SUNY Buffalo, and we are currently looking at the feeding strategies of corals in the Florida Keys.

Over the past decade, there have been alarming declines in the health and diversity of coral reefs all around the world.  The continual increase in development of coastal areas has resounding and sometimes fatal effects on nearby coral reefs.  The declines and, in some instances, die off of whole reefs have been linked to land-based stressors including natural and human-based processes that influence both water quality and levels r the longer term is unknown and this project is the first step in determining the resiliency and plasticity of corals to changing water conditions.

Pillar coral in the Florida Keys

We are interested in the effect of water quality on corals.  Human activities on land effect the health of corals and these detrimental effects can reduce the survival of the coral reef system.  The potential declines in coral cover and diversity will impact fish communities by reducing their abundance and diversity and have negative effects on the regions economy, which relies to a great extent on natural resources.

The goal of our project is to determine the differences in feeding strategies of corals living in turbid lagoonal waters compared with those living in offshore reefs.  We are working on patch reefs in the Florida Keys.

We are using molecular level technique to determine the main sources of nutrition that each coral species uses in these different environments. 

We are using stable isotope, fatty acid and amino acid analyses to determine the extent of autotrophic and heterotrophic modes of nutrition.  If corals do rely on different feeding strategies in turbid and high suspended particulate matter content waters, this may suggest that corals could survive under these conditions over the short term. 

Link to 2007 field collection photos and Trip Report

We have been working out of NURC and were funded by NURC and Mote Marine Laboratory to look at feeding startegies of corals: photos

Results to date indicate that:

  1. Inshore reefs are good “growth” environments, providing enhanced nutritional sources compared to offshore reef habitats

  2. Corals from nearshore patch reefs derive up to 60% of their energy needs from heterotrophic feeding on zooplankton, whereas corals from offshore reefs obtain almost 100% of their energy needs from their symbionts for energy

  3. In reciprocal transplants, corals transplanted from offshore to inshore habitats switch their feeding behavior and increase their heterotrophic feeding