Marine & Environmental Sciences Faculty Articles





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BMC Microbiology



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Climate change, Evenness, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Rarefaction, Richness, Symbiosis



Biodiversity and productivity of coral-reef ecosystems depend upon reef-building corals and their associations with endosymbiotic Symbiodiniaceae, which offer diverse functional capabilities to their hosts. The number of unique symbiotic partners (richness) and relative abundances (evenness) have been hypothesized to affect host response to climate change induced thermal stress. Symbiodiniaceae assemblages with many unique phylotypes may provide greater physiological flexibility or form less stable symbioses; assemblages with low abundance phylotypes may allow corals to retain thermotolerant symbionts or represent associations with less-suitable symbionts.


Here we demonstrate that true richness of Symbiodiniaceae phylotype assemblages is generally not discoverable from direct enumeration of unique phylotypes in association records and that cross host-species comparisons are biased by sampling and evolutionary patterns among species. These biases can be minimized through rarefaction of richness (rarefied-richness) and evenness (Probability of Interspecific Encounter, PIE), and analyses that account for phylogenetic patterns. These standardized metrics were calculated for individual Symbiodiniaceae assemblages composed of 377 unique ITS2 phylotypes associated with 123 coral species. Rarefied-richness minimized correlations with sampling effort, while maintaining important underlying characteristics across host bathymetry and geography. Phylogenetic comparative methods reveal significant increases in coral bleaching and mortality associated with increasing Symbiodiniaceae assemblage richness and evenness at the level of host species.


These results indicate that the potential flexibility afforded by assemblages characterized by many phylotypes present at similar relative abundances does not result in decreased bleaching risk and point to the need to characterize the overall functional and genetic diversity of Symbiodiniaceae assemblages to quantify their effect on host fitness under climate change.







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©The Author(s). 2020 Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

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NSF grant #: CBET-0937987, CBET-1240416

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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