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Keywords:

  • Competition;
  • corallivory;
  • excavating sponges;
  • indirect interaction;
  • parrotfish

Abstract

The parrotfish Sparisoma viride often grazes live coral from edges undermined by the Caribbean encrusting and excavating sponge Cliona tenuis. To test whether parrotfish biting action has an effect on the dynamics of the sponge–coral interaction, we manipulated access of parrotfishes to the sponge–coral border in two species of massive corals. When parrotfish had access to the border, C. tenuis advanced significantly more slowly into the coral Siderastrea siderea than into the coral Diploria strigosa. When fish bites were prevented, sponge spread into S. siderea was further slowed down but remained the same for D. strigosa. Additionally, a thinner layer of the outer coral skeleton was removed by bioerosion when fish were excluded, a condition more pronounced in D. strigosa than in S. siderea. Thus, the speed of sponge-spread and the extent of bioerosion by parrotfish was coral species-dependent. It is hypothesized that coral skeleton architecture is the main variable associated with such dependency. Cliona tenuis spread is slow when undermining live S. siderea owing to the coral’s compact skeleton. The coral’s smooth and hard surface promotes a wide and shallow parrotfish bite morphology, which allows the sponge to overgrow the denuded area and thus advance slightly faster. On the less compact skeleton of the brain coral, D. strigosa, sponge spread is more rapid. This coral’s rather uneven surface sustains narrower and deeper parrotfish bites which do not facilitate the already fast sponge progress. Parrotfish corallivory thus acts synergistically with C. tenuis to further harm corals whose skeletal architecture slows sponge lateral spread. In addition, C. tenuis also appears to mediate the predator–prey fish–coral interaction by attracting parrotfish biting.