Caught in the Net

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Science  11 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5984, pp. 1328
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5984.1328-a

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Coral reefs have turned out to be startlingly vulnerable to environmental events. Relatively small temperature rises make corals shed their essential symbionts in mass bleaching events; a small decrease in ocean pH erodes their apatite skeletons; seaweeds smother them if large fish are harvested to excess; crown-of-thorns starfish happily munch on them; and passing typhoons and hurricanes transform reefs into rubble. And these are only the things we know about!

Shima et al. have discovered in field surveys and experiments that a type of gastropod that lives buried and immobile within the coral superstructure is yet another threat to life. Wormsnails, or vermetids, are poorly studied and appear to feed by extruding a mucilaginous net across the substratum, and it seems to be this net that kills the coral through as yet unknown means. The presence of vermetids affects the growth rate of reef-building corals by 56%, causes dead patches, and reduces colony survival by 40%. Not all coral species are affected, indicating that resistance mechanisms may be at work and also that the wormsnails may exert a strong enough selective effect to change the species composition and, ultimately, the shape of a reef.

Biol. Lett. 6, 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0291 (2010).

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