Possible control of acute outbreaks of a marine fungal pathogen by nominally herbivorous tropical reef fish

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Primary producers in terrestrial and marine systems can be affected by fungal pathogens threatening the provision of critical ecosystem services. Crustose coralline algae (CCA) are ecologically important members of tropical reef systems and are impacted by coralline fungal disease (CFD) which manifests as overgrowth of the CCA crust by fungal lesions causing partial to complete mortality of the CCA host. No natural controls for CFD have been identified, but nominally herbivorous fish could play a role by consuming pathogenic fungi. We documented preferential grazing on fungal lesions by adults of six common reef-dwelling species of herbivorous Acanthuridae and Labridae, (surgeonfish and parrotfish) which collectively demonstrated an ~ 80-fold higher grazing rate on fungal lesions relative to their proportionate benthic coverage, and a preference for lesions over other palatable substrata (e.g. live scleractinian coral, CCA, or algae). Furthermore, we recorded a ~ 600% increase in live CFD lesion size over an approximately 2-week period when grazing by herbivorous fish was experimentally excluded suggesting that herbivorous reef fish could control CFD progression by directly reducing biomass of the fungal pathogen. Removal rates may be sufficient to allow CCA to recover from infection and explain historically observed natural waning behaviour after an outbreak. Thus, in addition to their well-known role as determinants of macroalgal overgrowth of reefs, herbivorous fish could thus also be important in control of diseases affecting crustose coralline algae that stabilize the foundation of coral reef substrata.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Possible control of acute outbreaks of a marine fungal pathogen by nominally herbivorous tropical reef fish
Series title Oecologia
DOI 10.1007/s00442-020-04697-7
Volume 193
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) National Wildlife Health Center
Description 15 p.
First page 603
Last page 617
Country United States
Other Geospatial Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
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