Many coral species display changing distribution patterns across coral reef depths. While changes in the underwater light field and the ability to associate with different photosynthetic symbionts of the genus Symbiodinium explain some of the variation, the limits to physiological plasticity are unknown for most corals. In the central Red Sea, colonies of the branching coral Pocillopora verrucosa are most abundant in shallow high light environments and become less abundant in water depths below 10 m. To further understand what determines this narrow distribution, we conducted a cross-depths transplant experiment looking at physiological plasticity and acclimation in regard to depth. Colonies from 5, 10, and 20 m were collected, transplanted to all depths, and re-investigated after 30 and 210 d. All coral colonies transplanted downward from shallow to deep water displayed an increase in photosynthetic light-harvesting pigments, which resulted in higher photosynthetic efficiency. Shallow-water specimens transplanted to deeper water showed a significant decrease in total protein content after 30 and 210 d under low light conditions compared to specimens transplanted to shallow and medium depths. Stable isotope data suggest that heterotrophic input of carbon was not increased under low light, and consequently, decreasing protein levels were symptomatic of decreasing photosynthetic rates that could not be compensated for through higher light-harvesting efficiency. Our results provide insights into the physiological plasticity of P. verrucosa in changing light regimes and explain the observed depth distribution pattern. Despite its high abundance in shallow reef waters, P. verrucosa possesses limited heterotrophic acclimation potential, i.e., the ability to support its mainly photoautotrophic diet through heterotrophic feeding. We conclude that P. verrucosa might be a species vulnerable to sudden changes in underwater light fields resulting from processes such as increased turbidity caused by coastal development along the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast. 2014 The Author(s).
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Aquatic Science