The combination of ocean warming and acidification as a result of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is considered to be a significant threat to calcifying organisms and their activities on coral reefs. How these global changes impact the important roles of decalcifying organisms (bioeroders) in the regulation of carbonate budgets, however, is less understood. To address this important question, the effects of a range of past, present and future CO2 emission scenarios (temperature + acidification) on the excavating sponge Cliona orientalis Thiele, 1900 were explored over 12 weeks in early summer on the southern Great Barrier Reef. C. orientalis is a widely distributed bioeroder on many reefs, and hosts symbiotic dinoflagellates of the genus Symbiodinium. Our results showed that biomass production and bioerosion rates of C. orientalis were similar under a pre-industrial scenario and a present day (control) scenario. Symbiodinium population density in the sponge tissue was the highest under the pre-industrial scenario, and decreased towards the two future scenarios with sponge replicates under the ‘business-as-usual’ CO2 emission scenario exhibiting strong bleaching. Despite these changes, biomass production and the ability of the sponge to erode coral carbonate materials both increased under the future scenarios. Our study suggests that C. orientalis will likely grow faster and have higher bioerosion rates in a high CO2 future than at present, even with significant bleaching. Assuming that our findings hold for excavating sponges in general, increased sponge biomass coupled with accelerated bioerosion may push coral reefs towards net erosion and negative carbonate budgets in the future.
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