The influence of heterotrophy on the resilience of hard coral Pocillopora damicornis to thermal stress and bleaching.
Global warming from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions causes temperature increases in aquatic ecosystems. The rise in environmental temperatures places sensitive organisms under thermal stress. Reef-building corals are a critically important group of animals that provide many ecosystem services for coral reef ecology and the economy and are at a high risk of loss from thermal stress. Thermal stress causes corals to lose their colour, i.e. become bleached, resulting from the loss of symbiont zooxanthellae. This diminishes the energetic benefits that zooxanthellae provide to corals leading to a decline in coral health and high mortality rates. However, corals are also predators and can thus draw nutrients from zooplankton prey to supplement their nutritional requirements. This study investigated whether heterotrophic feeding can ameliorate the effects of thermal stress on coral physiology by providing an alternative energy source to zooxanthellar photosynthesis. Fragmented Pocillopora damicornis coral colonies were exposed to daily maximum temperatures of up to 31°C while being either starved or fed. During the experimental period coral nubbins were monitored for changes in polyp extension, oxygen consumption rate, feeding rate, colour, chlorophyll a content, zooxanthellae density, antioxidant potentials and DNA integrity during stress and after a short recovery period. It was found that, as expected, coral polyp extension, oxygen consumption rate, colour health, chlorophyll a content, zooxanthellae density and DNA integrity were all adversely affected by thermal stress. This indicted that all these measurements were viable biomarkers for assessing the negative effects of thermal stress on coral health. Coral colour, oxygen consumption rate, chlorophyll a content, lipid content, antioxidant potential and DNA integrity were all significantly improved by feeding. These results indicate that feeding does play a role in improving overall coral health and supports the physiological processes in coral tissue during and after thermal stress. The conclusions from this study also have great significance for coral reef ecology and management as predictions of reef resilience can be made from zooplankton ecology and boosting zooplankton availability to corals may be considered to mitigate the harmful effects of thermal stress and bleaching.