Dynamic regulation of partner abundance mediates response of reef coral symbioses to environmental change

R. Cunning, N. Vaughan, P. Gillette, T. R. Capo, J. L. Mate, Andrew C Baker, S. G. Morgan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Regulating partner abundance may allow symbiotic organisms to mediate interaction outcomes, facilitating adaptive responses to environmental change. To explore the capacity for adaptive regulation in an ecologically important endosymbiosis, we studied the population dynamics of symbiotic algae in reef-building corals under different abiotic contexts. We found high natural variability in symbiont abundance in corals across reefs, but this variability converged to different symbiont-specific abundances when colonies were maintained under constant conditions. When conditions changed seasonally, symbiont abundance readjusted to new equilibria. We explain these patterns using an a priori model of symbiotic costs and benefits to the coral host, which shows that the observed changes in symbiont abundance are consistent with the maximization of interaction benefit under different environmental conditions. These results indicate that, while regulating symbiont abundance helps hosts sustain maximum benefit in a dynamic environment, spatiotemporal variation in abiotic factors creates a broad range of symbiont abundances (and interaction outcomes) among corals that may account for observed natural variability in performance (e.g., growth rate) and stress tolerance (e.g., bleaching susceptibility). This cost or benefit framework provides a new perspective on the dynamic regulation of reef coral symbioses and illustrates that the dependence of interaction outcomes on biotic and abiotic contexts may be important in understanding how diverse mutualisms respond to environmental change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1411-1420
Number of pages10
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2015


  • Benefits and costs
  • Context dependence
  • Coral
  • Density dependence
  • Dinoflagellates
  • Mutualism
  • Optimality model
  • Pocillopora damicorni
  • Population dynamics
  • Symbiodinium
  • Symbiosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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