Gradients in Primary Production Predict Trophic Strategies of Mixotrophic Corals across Spatial Scales

Michael D. Fox, Gareth J. Williams, Maggie D. Johnson, Veronica Z. Radice, Brian J. Zgliczynski, Emily L.A. Kelly, Forest L. Rohwer, Stuart A. Sandin, Jennifer E. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Mixotrophy is among the most successful nutritional strategies in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The ability of organisms to supplement primary nutritional modes along continua of autotrophy and heterotrophy fosters trophic flexibility that can sustain metabolic demands under variable or stressful conditions. Symbiotic, reef-building corals are among the most broadly distributed and ecologically important mixotrophs, yet we lack a basic understanding of how they modify their use of autotrophy and heterotrophy across gradients of food availability. Here, we evaluate how one coral species, Pocillopora meandrina, supplements autotrophic nutrition through heterotrophy within an archipelago and test whether this pattern holds across species globally. Using stable isotope analysis (δ13C) and satellite-derived estimates of nearshore primary production (chlorophyll-a, as a proxy for food availability), we show that P. meandrina incorporates a greater proportion of carbon via heterotrophy when more food is available across five central Pacific islands. We then show that this pattern is consistent globally using data from 15 coral species across 16 locations spanning the Caribbean Sea and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Globally, surface chlorophyll-a explains 77% of the variation in coral heterotrophic nutrition, 86% for one genus across 10 islands, and 94% when controlling for coral taxonomy within archipelagos. These results demonstrate, for the first time, that satellite-derived estimates of nearshore primary production provide a globally relevant proxy for resource availability that can explain variation in coral trophic ecology. Thus, our model provides a pivotal step toward resolving the biophysical couplings between mixotrophic organisms and spatial patterns of resource availability in the coastal oceans. How mixotrophic corals balance autotrophic and heterotrophic nutrition in relation to food availability is unknown. Fox et al. demonstrate that satellite estimates of nearshore primary production predict the trophic ecology of reef-building corals at regional and global scales. In more productive regions, some corals are consistently more heterotrophic.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3355-3363.e4
Number of pages33626646
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 5 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Generated from Scopus record by KAUST IRTS on 2022-09-13

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'Gradients in Primary Production Predict Trophic Strategies of Mixotrophic Corals across Spatial Scales'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this