HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

Second Degree Name

M.S. Coastal Zone Management

First Advisor

David S. Gilliam

Second Advisor

Jose V. Lopez

Third Advisor

Aurelien Tartar


Coral diseases were first noted in the 1960s and 1970s and have had major impacts globally on coral reef community structures. In the Caribbean, a major outbreak of white band disease has been considered responsible for the drastic decline of Caribbean Acroporids since the 1970s. In addition to white band disease, another more recently described condition known as rapid tissue loss (RTL) has had major impacts on Acropora cervicornis populations, specifically offshore Broward County Southeast Florida. While these diseases have contributed to the population decline, determining their etiologies has been elusive.

Coral diseases have been characterized by shifts in their microbial counterparts within many levels of the coral host. While some coral diseases have had specific pathogens identified, research has not been able to determine pathogens for most. Evidence points toward bacterial causes for many diseases, but due to the complexity of the coral holobiont and the interaction with the environment, elucidating the causes has proven difficult. Many studies have examined the microbiomes of specific diseases and determined some potential pathogens or at least taxa playing important roles in the disease, although none have looked at RTL. Recognizing the local affect of RTL on A. cervicornis, this study set out to gain a baseline understanding of the healthy and RTL affected microbiome of A. cervicornis.

16S rRNA gene sequencing was used to examine the microbiome of completely healthy colonies, healthy regions of diseased colonies, and the disease margin of diseased colonies. Analysis of four microbial diversity metrics revealed marked increases in diversity with respect to declining health states. Additionally, community dissimilarity analysis and analysis of differentially abundant taxa exhibited distinct microbial community structures due to coral health. Several highly abundant (Rickettsiales, Rhodobacteraceae) and a few low abundance (Bdellovibrionales) taxa were identified as primary drivers of the differences. Additionally, Piscirickettsiaceae, a known fish pathogen, was consistently associated with RTL and warrants further investigation. All of the taxa identified with in RTL have been associated with other Acroporid and non-Acroporid diseases throughout the Caribbean and the rest of the world. The consistent IV

association of similar taxa for coral diseases around the world, including those found in this study, supports the recent ideas of non-specific primary pathogens.

While most disease studies, coral and otherwise, aim to determine a single pathogen for a single disease, this study and others suggest there could be a multitude of organisms responsible for the disease. Therefore understanding the interactions of the coral holobiont and the environment is important to understanding coral disease. While this study reveals significant changes in the bacterial community associated with RTL as well as some potential pathogens, the relationships appear complex and perhaps at a functional level rather than merely taxonomic. Furthermore, this study did not examine viruses, fungi, or protists, which could be possible pathogens. Therefore, to further develop an understanding of RTL and many other coral diseases it will be necessary to consider additional none-bacterial members of the holobiont as well as the bacterial functions and taxa coupled with the roles of environmental factors.


Permit #: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Special Activity License-11-1327-SRP