text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation Home National Science Foundation - Geosciences (GEO)
Geosciences (GEO)
design element
GEO Home
About GEO
Funding Opportunities
Advisory Committee
Career Opportunities
GEO Education Program
See Additional GEO Resources
View GEO Staff
GEO Organizations
Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS)
Earth Sciences (EAR)
Ocean Sciences (OCE)
Polar Programs (PLR)
Proposals and Awards
Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide
Proposal Preparation and Submission
bullet Grant Proposal Guide
  bullet Grants.gov Application Guide
Award and Administration
bullet Award and Administration Guide
Award Conditions
Merit Review
NSF Outreach
Policy Office
Additional GEO Resources
Advisory Committee Meetings
Career Opportunities
Funding Rates
Budget Excerpt
Dynamics Earth: GEO Imperatives and Frontiers, 2015-2020 (A Report of AC-GEO (12/14))
Strategic Framework for Topical Areas, 2012 (Follow on to GEO Vision)
GEO Data Policies
U.S. Global Change Research Program
Other Site Features
Special Reports
Research Overviews
Multimedia Gallery
Classroom Resources
NSF-Wide Investments

Email this pagePrint this page

Life on a Coral Reef: Insult Is (Sometimes) Added to Injury

Overfishing removes predatory fish that keep sponges from smothering corals

Giant barrel sponges off Little Cayman Island in the Caribbean next to a researcher.

Giant barrel sponges off Little Cayman Island in the Caribbean dwarf researchers.
Credit and Larger Version

May 8, 2013

When is insult added to injury for a Caribbean coral reef?

When overfishing removes predatory fish that feed on sponges, according to results reported this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Using the undersea habitat Aquarius--moored on Conch Reef off Key Largo, Fla.--marine scientist Joseph Pawlik of the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and colleagues found that these predator fish are the same brightly colored angelfish and parrotfish that attract scuba divers and glass-bottom boat tourists.

Pawlik is first author of the PLOS ONE paper; co-authors, all from UNCW, are Tse-Lynn Loh, Steven McMurray and Christopher Finelli.

Chemical warfare beneath the waves

The fish prey on sponges without chemical defenses--sponges missing what might be called the "yuk factor."

"Sponges that manufacture metabolites that are distasteful to fish are largely left alone," says Pawlik.

"That being said, when overfishing by humans removes these predatory fish, reefs shift toward faster growing sponges that can out compete reef corals for space.

"That further hinders corals' chances of recovery."

Coral cover on Caribbean reefs is at historic lows due to disease, heat stress from warming waters and waves from storms.

Undersea garden of sponges

"Coral reefs, especially in the Caribbean, have undergone many changes in the past few decades," says David Garrison, a program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

"With the decline of reef-building corals, sponges are becoming the main organisms on many reefs. These findings provide important information about interactions between sponges and predatory fish in coral reef communities."

Previous research showed that Caribbean sponge communities were primarily structured by the availability of plankton, or tiny floating plants and animals, rather than by predators.

But sponge growth experiments performed by Pawlik and colleagues--research that used cages to exclude predators--show the opposite.

"Overfished reefs that lack spongivores [sponge-eating fish] soon become dominated by faster growing, chemically undefended sponge species, which better compete for space with reef-building corals," says Pawlik.

Endangered corals: threatened by "new game in town"?

That has implications for fisheries management throughout the Caribbean.

"Some coral species are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Red List, with four reef-building corals on the top 10 list for risk of extinction."

Sponges are already overrunning certain coral reefs.

"As the effects of climate change and ocean acidification disrupt marine communities," says Pawlik, "it's likely that reef-building corals will suffer greater harm than sponges, which don't form at-risk limestone skeletons [as corals do]."

Hence, he believes, Caribbean reefs of the future are likely to be made up increasingly of sponges.

Scuba divers and glass-bottom boat tourists may visit not to view coral reefs, but to see the new game in town: the sponges.

--  Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov

Related Websites
NSF Discovery Article: Trouble in Paradise: Ocean Acidification This Way Comes: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=122642&org=NSF

Scientists research chemical defenses in tube sponges off Little Cayman Island.
Scientists research chemical defenses in tube sponges off Little Cayman Island.
Credit and Larger Version

Close up of an orange sponge
Predatory fish prevent orange sponges from smothering corals.
Credit and Larger Version

Sponge growth experiment underway on Conch Reef, Key Largo, Florida.
A sponge growth experiment underway on Conch Reef, Key Largo, Fla.
Credit and Larger Version

Diver surveys a gray tube sponge with "bite marks" from angelfish
A gray tube sponge with "bite marks" from angelfish off Grand Cayman Island.
Credit and Larger Version

Reef-building corals overgrown by orange sponges on an overfished reef off Martinique.
Reef-building corals overgrown by orange sponges on an overfished reef off Martinique.
Credit and Larger Version

Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page