Coral colonization by the encrusting excavating Caribbean sponge Cliona delitrix


Sven Zea, Centro de Estudios en Ciencias del Mar – CECIMAR, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Cerro Punta de Betín, Santa Marta, Colombia.


The Caribbean sponge Cliona delitrix is among the strongest reef space competitors; it is able to overpower entire coral heads by undermining coral polyps. It has become abundant in reefs exposed to organic pollution, such as San Andrés Island, Colombia, SW Caribbean. Forty-four sponge-colonized coral colonies were followed-up for 13 months to establish the circumstances and the speed at which this sponge advances laterally into live coral tissue and the coral tissue retreats. Cliona delitrix presence and abundance was recorded at seven stations to interpret current reef space and coral species colonization trends. The spread of C. delitrix on a coral colony was preceded by a band of dead coral a few millimeters to several centimeters wide. However, the sponge was directly responsible for coral death only when live coral tissue was within about 2 cm distance; coral death became sponge advance-independent at greater distances, being indirectly dependent on other conditions that tend to accelerate its retreat. Cliona delitrix advanced fastest into recently killed clean coral calices; however, sponge spread slowed down when these became colonized by algae. The lateral advance of C. delitrix was slower than other Cliona spp. encrusting excavating sponges, probably owing to the greater depth of its excavation into the substratum. Cliona delitrix prefers elevated portions of massive corals, apparently settling on recently dead areas. It currently inhabits 6–9% of colonies in reefs bordering San Andrés. It was found more frequently in Siderastrea siderea (the most abundant local massive coral), which is apparently more susceptible to tissue mortality than other corals. Current massive coral mortality caused by C. delitrix could initially change the relative proportions of coral species and in the long-term favor foliose and branching corals.