HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Esther C. Peters

Second Advisor

Patricia L. Blackwelder

Third Advisor

Nicole D. Fogarty


Rickettsiales-like organisms (RLOs) are thought to be related to bacteria in the order Rickettsiales. They have been reported to occur in the staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), and this study investigated trends of infection over time, and in relation to the health of infected corals. This study focuses on tissue samples taken mostly from visibly healthy A. cervicornis thickets in Broward County, Florida, and processed for histological examination. Samples were originally collected and analyzed to document reproduction during years 2001 through 2012, and tissue loss diseases (white-band disease [WBD] types I and II, and rapid tissue loss). The presence of suspect RLOs, the presence of ovoid bacterial aggregates in the basal body wall, and the condition of the coral tissue were examined in hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) and Giemsa-stained sections. Determination was made as to whether suspect RLO infection severity, location, or the presence of bacterial aggregates are correlated with changes in tissue condition associated with WBD. To better understand progression, trends, and periodicity in bacterial presence and coral tissue health, these data were then further analyzed for potential correlation with the month, year, and average monthly nighttime sea surface temperatures (categorized into ranges above, within, or below 24–29°C) when samples were collected. The severity of suspect RLO infections and the presence of bacterial aggregates in A. cervicornis varied over time, with no correlation with the location of suspect RLOs within the polyp. High suspect RLO prevalence was correlated with normal tissue conditions, while low suspect RLO prevalence was correlated with abnormal tissue conditions. However, high prevalence of bacterial aggregates was correlated to abnormal tissue conditions. Epidermal RLO and overall suspect RLO prevalence severity scores were significantly higher among samples collected when monthly average nighttime sea surface temperatures were below 24°C in contrast to samples collected when temperatures were between 24–29°C, suggesting direct or indirect effects of sea surface temperatures on infection severity. The areas of suspect RLO intracellular bodies within infected mucocytes were measured using digital image analysis software and found to be positively correlated with worsening coral tissue condition. Semiquantitative variable scores for histoslides stained with H&E were significantly different from those stained with Giemsa, indicating that these stains cannot be used interchangeably to study the presence of bacteria and the condition of coral tissue. Overall, the results of this study indicate that infection severity of suspect RLOs and the presence of bacterial aggregates are variable and correlated with the incidence of WBD-I in A. cervicornis. However, the exact nature of this relationship remains unclear. Further studies are necessary to interpret trends detected during this analysis to develop a better understanding of what contributes to the severe tissue-loss outbreaks and mortalities of A. cervicornis.

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