Flexibility and Specificity in Coral-Algal Symbiosis: Diversity, Ecology, and Biogeography of Symbiodinium

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707 Scopus citations


Reef corals (and other marine invertebrates and protists) are hosts to a group of exceptionally diverse dinoflagellate symbionts in the genus Symbiodinium. These symbionts are critical components of coral reef ecosystems whose loss during stress-related "bleaching" events can lead to mass mortality of coral hosts and associated collapse of reef ecosystems. Molecular studies have shown these partnerships to be more flexible than previously thought, with different hosts and symbionts showing varying degrees of specificity in their associations. Further studies are beginning to reveal the systematic, ecological, and biogeographic underpinnings of this flexibility. Unusual symbionts normally found only in larval stages, marginal environments, uncommon host taxa, or at latitudinal extremes may prove critical in understanding the long-term resilience of coral reef ecosystems to environmental perturbation. The persistence of bleaching-resistant symbiont types in affected ecosystems, and the possibility of recombination among different partners following bleaching, may lead to significant shifts in symbiont community structure and elevations of future bleaching thresholds. Monitoring symbiont communities worldwide is essential to understanding the long-term response of reefs to global climate change because it will help resolve current controversy over the timescales over which symbiont change might occur. Symbiont diversity should be explicitly incorporated into the design of coral reef Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) where resistance or resilience to bleaching is a consideration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)661-689
Number of pages29
JournalAnnual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics
StatePublished - 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Bleaching
  • Climate change
  • Reef
  • Scleractinia
  • Zooxanthellae

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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