Lobophora: biotic interactions and diversification

Abstract : The brown alga Lobophora represents a notable benthic component in tropical coral reefs, and began drawing the attention of marine ecologists by achieving impressive blooms at the expense of corals since the early 80s. Marine ecologists are still debating whether or not macroalgal dominance represents a consequence or cause of coral degradation. While Lobophora has been the object of contradictory observations in terms of susceptibility to herbivory and effects on corals, evidence tends to suggest that episodes of reef take-over are opportunistic and symptomatic of reef degradation. From a taxonomic point of view, only 11 species of Lobophora were recognized at the beginning of this study, and virtually all species of Lobophora reported around the world had been assigned to L. variegata, originally described from the Caribbean. This study intends to shed new taxonomical and ecological insights on this algal taxon. Using a DNA-based taxonomical approach we reassessed the species diversity of this genus at a local scale in New Caledonia and subsequently on a global level. Results disclosed a remarkable global diversity, increasing our taxonomic knowledge of this genus by no less than 10 folds. From an ecological perspective, we tested if different species of Lobophora were differentially (1) capable of chemically damaging scleractinian corals, and (2) susceptible to herbivory. We showed that the genus Lobophora was inherently capable of bleaching certain coral species, and we isolated three new C21 polyunsaturated alcohols named lobophorenols A-C with bleaching properties. Nevertheless, in situ observations in New Caledonia indicated that although potentially chemically armed, Lobophora species did not or rarely bleached their coral hosts, thereby raising the issue of the location of these bioactive components and the environmental factors enabling their putative release by the alga. We also showed that herbivores indiscriminately consumed Lobophora species. From the results of allelopathic bioassays and grazing experiments we conclude that: (1) corals and Lobophora maintain a chemical-mediated status quo on healthy reefs; (2) chemical defense apparently does not deter grazing of Lobophora by prominent herbivores; (3) it is more likely that Lobophora avoids being grazed by escape strategies such as growing under the coral canopy. The genus Lobophora represents an excellent model to study the role of ecological speciation in macroalgae within coral reefs. Therefore, future studies should be targeted at investigating the role of Lobophora secondary metabolites and exploring the ecological factors responsible for the impressive diversification of this alga.
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Christophe Vieira. Lobophora: biotic interactions and diversification. Systematics, Phylogenetics and taxonomy. Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris, France); Ghent University (Gand, Belgique), 2015. English. ⟨NNT : 2015PA066195⟩. ⟨tel-01252670⟩

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