Exploring Individual- to Population-Level Impacts of Disease on Coral Reef Sponges: Using Spatial Analysis to Assess the Fate, Dynamics, and Transmission of Aplysina Red Band Syndrome

No Thumbnail Available
Easson, Cole G.
Slattery, Marc
Momm, Henrique G.
Olson, Julie B.
Thacker, Robert W.
Gochfeld, Deborah J.
Lin, Senjie
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Background: Marine diseases are of increasing concern for coral reef ecosystems, but often their causes, dynamics and impacts are unknown. The current study investigated the epidemiology of Aplysina Red Band Syndrome (ARBS), a disease affecting the Caribbean sponge Aplysina cauliformis, at both the individual and population levels. The fates of marked healthy and ARBS-infected sponges were examined over the course of a year. Population-level impacts and transmission mechanisms of ARBS were investigated by monitoring two populations of A. cauliformis over a three year period using digital photography and diver-collected data, and analyzing these data with GIS techniques of spatial analysis. In this study, three commonly used spatial statistics (Ripley's K, Getis-Ord General G, and Moran's Index) were compared to each other and with direct measurements of individual interactions using join-counts, to determine the ideal method for investigating disease dynamics and transmission mechanisms in this system. During the study period, Hurricane Irene directly impacted these populations, providing an opportunity to assess potential storm effects on A. cauliformis and ARBS.
Results: Infection with ARBS caused increased loss of healthy sponge tissue over time and a higher likelihood of individual mortality. Hurricane Irene had a dramatic effect on A. cauliformis populations by greatly reducing sponge biomass on the reef, especially among diseased individuals. Spatial analysis showed that direct contact between A. cauliformis individuals was the likely transmission mechanism for ARBS within a population, evidenced by a significantly higher number of contact-joins between diseased sponges compared to random. Of the spatial statistics compared, the Moran's Index best represented true connections between diseased sponges in the survey area. This study showed that spatial analysis can be a powerful tool for investigating disease dynamics and transmission in a coral reef ecosystem.
PLoS ONE. 2013 Oct 7;8(11):e79976