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Seaweeds and corals go through the media meat-grinder“If it bleeds it leads” is a common meme in the journalism field, but when it becomes the mantra of science reporting, sometimes the real message gets lost in translation. Unfortunately, so it is with a new paper from Doug Rasher and Mark Hay down the road at Georgia Tech. In their work, published in PNAS this week, they show that algae from coral reefs can have toxic effects on adjacent corals including bleaching (expulsion of the symbiotic algae that are responsible for much of the corals success) and even death. They provide evidence that these effects are mediated by lipid soluble compounds and that they are much reduced on reefs that have healthy herbivorous fish populations to keep the algae in check. There, I summarized their work in 2 sentences. It’s disappointing, then, that the NSF (NSF for goodness sake!) turned that into “Killer Seaweed: Scientists Find First Proof that Chemicals from Seaweeds Damage Coral on Contact”. Unfortunately, that kind of catch-phrase gets picked up all over, so that MSNBC ran with “Killer seaweed threatens corals: Innocent-looking species turns into an assassin of nearby reefs” (assassin? Really?!). The Georgia Tech website went with “Research shows that chemicals from seaweed kills corals on contact”. Not as dramatic perhaps, but more reasonable. Ed Yong at Discover Blogs chose to emphasise the fish side of the story: “Overfishing gives toxic seaweeds an edge in their competition with corals”; both these seem fine to me, but honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with using the title of the paper “Chemically rich seaweeds poison corals when not controlled by herbivores”. I think Rasher and Hay did a good job distilling the essence of the paper into a punchy and information-dense title. In any case, its frustrating to see crux of a paper lost in attempts to sensationalise the story, as did all the outlets who went with the “killer seaweed” theme.

Putting aside the press treatment, I think there’s an important part of the story missing from this paper. In it, Rasher and Hay report that in the absence of herbivores, 40-70% of common seaweeds cause bleaching of a model coral species (Porites), depending on where you are. If you average that – 55% - then roughly half of seaweeds were toxic to their model coral. On this proportion and their comparison of overfished and non-overfished reefs, they base the conclusion that these algae are bad for corals, that herbivores suppress the algae and, therefore, that overfishing will increase coral declines by allowing toxic algae to proliferate. All of these seem reasonable ideas, but I kept asking myself: what about the reciprocal effect? What percentage of corals are antagonistic to algae? If, say, half of all corals can damage adjacent algae, then the net effect of all this antagonism at the largest scale is zero. If half of algae kill corals and half of corals kill algae, it could be zero sum. This seems important to me, because it would undermine the conclusion that overfishing of herbivores will necessarily lead to declines in reef corals. Indeed, I could make the reverse argument that overfishing of corallivores (fish that eat corals) might lead to proliferation of corals and therefore the decline of reef algae. We just don't know because that work hasnt been done. 

Of course, you can’t include everything in a single paper and I would expect the authors to respond to my point by saying that the experiments I describe were beyond the scope of their project. But I think it could have been a better paper if they acknowledged that there’s another possibility that cannot be excluded, based on work that’s yet to be done.

Rasher, D., & Hay, M. (2010). Chemically rich seaweeds poison corals when not controlled by herbivores Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0912095107

Reader Comments (1)

Interesting, because I always assumed that algal overgrowth was damaging to the corals, not the secondary metabolites that are created as chemical defenses.

Also, on your other point, I think a reason why there isn't research the other way around is that most picture a pristine reef as one with little to no macroalgae, and so people are less interested in why that occurs (assumed to be high herbivore diversity coupled with low nutrients, rather than some coral defense).

Anyway, its an interesting read. Thanks!

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Carroll

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