Divergent symbiont communities determine the physiology and nutrition of a reef coral across a light-availability gradient.


Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, PO Box 1346, Kāne'ohe, HI, 96744, USA. [Email]


Reef corals are mixotrophic organisms relying on symbiont-derived photoautotrophy and water column heterotrophy. Coral endosymbionts (Family: Symbiodiniaceae), while typically considered mutualists, display a range of species-specific and environmentally mediated opportunism in their interactions with coral hosts, potentially requiring corals to rely more on heterotrophy to avoid declines in performance. To test the influence of symbiont communities on coral physiology (tissue biomass, symbiont density, photopigmentation) and nutrition (δ13C, δ15N), we sampled Montipora capitata colonies dominated by a specialist symbiont Cladocopium spp. or a putative opportunist Durusdinium glynnii (hereafter, C- or D-colonies) from Kāne'ohe Bay, Hawai'i, across gradients in photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) during summer and winter. We report for the first time that isotope values of reef corals are influenced by Symbiodiniaceae communities, indicative of different autotrophic capacities among symbiont species. D-colonies had on average 56% higher symbiont densities, but lower photopigments per symbiont cell and consistently lower δ13C values in host and symbiont tissues; this pattern in isotope values is consistent with lower symbiont carbon assimilation and translocation to the host. Neither C- nor D-colonies showed signs of greater heterotrophy or nutritional plasticity; instead changes in δ13C values were driven by PAR availability and photoacclimation attributes that differed between symbiont communities. Together, these results reveal Symbiodiniaceae functional diversity produces distinct holobionts with different capacities for autotrophic nutrition, and energy tradeoffs from associating with opportunist symbionts are not met with increased heterotrophy.

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