Spatial and temporal patterns of scleractinian coral, soft coral, and zoanthid disease on a remote, near-pristine coral reef (Palmyra Atoll, central Pacific).
There is an urgent need for accurate baselines of coral disease prevalence across our oceans in order for sudden or unnatural changes to be recognized. Palmyra Atoll allows us to study disease dynamics under near-pristine, functionally intact conditions. We examined disease prevalence among all known species of scleractinian coral, soft coral and zoanthid (Palythoa) at a variety of coral reef habitats at Palmyra over a 2 yr period. In 2008, overall disease prevalence across the atoll was low (0.33%), but higher on the shallower backreef (0.88%) and reef terrace (0.80%) than on the deeper forereef (0.09%). Scleractinian coral disease prevalence was higher (0.30%) than were soft coral and zoanthid disease (0.03% combined). Growth anomalies (GAs) were the most commonly encountered lesions, with scleractinian species in the genera Astreopora (2.12%), Acropora (1.30%), and Montipora (0.98%) showing the highest prevalence atoll-wide. Discoloration necrosis (DN) was most prevalent in the zoanthid Palythoa tuberculosa (1.18%), although the soft coral Sinulana and Montipora also had a prevalence of 0.44 and 0.01%, respectively. Overall disease prevalence within permanently marked transects increased from 0.65% in 2008 to 0.79% in 2009. Palythoa DN contributed most to this increased prevalence, which coincided with rising temperatures during the 2009 El Niño. GAs on the majority of susceptible genera at Palmyra increased in number over time, and led to tissue death. Host distribution and environmental factors (e.g., temperature) appear to be important for determining spatiotemporal patterns of disease at Palmyra. More sophisticated analyses are required to tease apart the likely inter-correlated proximate drivers of disease occurrence on remote, near-pristine reefs.
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