Research Article: Genotype and local environment dynamically influence growth, disturbance response and survivorship in the threatened coral, Acropora cervicornis

Date Published: March 20, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Crawford Drury, Derek Manzello, Diego Lirman, Chaolun Allen Chen.


The relationship between the coral genotype and the environment is an important area of research in degraded coral reef ecosystems. We used a reciprocal outplanting experiment with 930 corals representing ten genotypes on each of eight reefs to investigate the influence of genotype and the environment on growth and survivorship in the threatened Caribbean staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis. Coral genotype and site were strong drivers of coral growth and individual genotypes exhibited flexible, non-conserved reaction norms, complemented by ten-fold differences in growth between specific G-E combinations. Growth plasticity may diminish the influence of local adaptation, where foreign corals grew faster than native corals at their home sites. Novel combinations of environment and genotype also significantly affected disturbance response during and after the 2015 bleaching event, where these factors acted synergistically to drive variation in bleaching and recovery. Importantly, small differences in temperature stress elicit variable patterns of survivorship based on genotype and illustrate the importance of novel combinations of coral genetics and small differences between sites representing habitat refugia. In this context, acclimatization and flexibility is especially important given the long lifespan of corals coping with complex environmental change. The combined influence of site and genotype creates short-term differences in growth and survivorship, contributing to the standing genetic variation needed for adaptation to occur over longer timescales and the recovery of degraded reefs through natural mechanisms.

Partial Text

Coral reef ecosystems worldwide have experienced chronic degradation over the past century, with particularly drastic declines in recent decades. This deterioration is likely to continue as multiple natural and anthropogenic stressors interact on various spatial scales, impacting coral survivorship, growth, and reef structure and function [1]. Among the most impacted regions, the Western Atlantic has lost nearly 80% of coral cover since 1970 [2], driven partially by the loss of staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis. This species plays a critical structural role as a reef-builder, creating habitat for fish and invertebrates and consolidating loose sediments and rubble [3]. A. cervicornis was formerly dominant throughout the Caribbean, but the impacts of White Band Disease and bleaching [4–6], storm damage [7] and the die-off of Diadema antillarum [8] have resulted in drastic population declines. While a few areas maintain healthy populations [9], other areas of formerly high abundance have lost > 95% of colonies [10, 11], causing an unprecedented shift in community structure [12]. In response to regional declines, A. cervicornis was listed as ‘threatened’ in 2006 under the United States Endangered Species Act [13] and is considered ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN [14].

Acropora cervicornis is an important reef-building coral in the Caribbean, forming habitat for many associated organisms [62] and structure needed for reef function [3, 63]. In recent years, it has become a focus for mitigation by active restoration to limit the extensive declines in this region [64]. The habitats and coral genotypes used here cover a broad environmental range of Florida reefs and expand on prior results showing differential growth among genotypes in a common garden [29, 30] and variable growth between sites [65]. We show A. cervicornis transplanted onto a variety of reefs exhibits variable growth and disturbance response dynamically dictated by multiple factors. Coral genotype was a significant factor in pooled growth, where environmental variability might be expected to overwhelm genotypic differences between individuals, meaning genotype is an important driver of colony success. Environment was also a significant determinant of growth, with reefs classified into three significant growth levels over a four-fold difference in average growth. In addition, extensive phenotypic plasticity in growth rate is evident for individuals in different environments, which may contribute to the apparent lack of local adaptation observed in this study.




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