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Latin american journal of aquatic research

versión On-line ISSN 0718-560X

Lat. Am. J. Aquat. Res. v.38 n.2 Valparaíso  2010


Lat. Am. J. Aquat. Res., 38(2): 292-296, 2010
DOI: 10.3856/vol38-issue2-fülltext-16

Short Communication


Seasonal prevalence of white plague like disease on the endemic Brazilian reef coral Mussismilia braziliensis

Prevalencia estacional de la enfermedad de la plaga blanca en el coral endémico de Brasil Mussismilia braziliensis


Ronaldo Francini-Filho1,2,3, Rodrigo Reis3, Pedro Meirelles3, Rodrigo Moura2,3, Fabiano Thompson4, Ruy Kikuchi3 & Les Kaufman5,6

1   Departamento de Biología, Centro de Ciencias Biológicas e da Saúde, Universidade Estadual da Paraíba Avenida das Baraúnas 351, 58109-753 Campiña Grande, PB, Brazil
2   Conservation International Brazil, Marine Program, Rúa das Palmeiras 451, 45900-000 Caravelas, BA, Brazil
3   Grupo de Pesquisas em Recifes de corals e Mudanças Globais, Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA) Rúa Caetano Moura 123, 40210-340 Salvador, BA, Brazil
4   Instituto de Biologia, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Ilha do Fundão Caixa Postal 68011 CEP 21944-970 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
5   Boston University Marine Program, 5 Cummington Street Boston, MA 02215 USA
6   Conservation International, 2011 Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA 22202 USA

Dirección para correspondencia

ABSTRACT. The reef coral Mussismilia braziliensis Verril, 1968 is endemic to the eastern Brazilian coast, representing a major reef-building species in the region. This coral is threatened by extinction due to the recent proliferation of a white-plague like (WPL) disease. Despite its severe impacts, the environmental factors leading to outbreaks of WPL disease are still poorly understood. This study describes the seasonal prevalence of WPL disease on M. braziliensis in the Abrolhos Bank, on the southern coast of Bahia Brazil. In situ estimates showed that WPL disease was about 4.5 times more prevalent in summer (January 2007, mean sea surface temperature 27.4°C) than in winter (July 2007, 25.0°C). This result suggests that the prevalence of WPL disease in M. braziliensis is temperature-dependent, supporting the hypothesis that warmer oceans are facilitating the proliferation of coral diseases worldwide.

Keywords: coral diseases, reef resilience, thermal stress, Abrolhos Bank, southwestern Atlantic, Brazil.

RESUMEN. El coral Mussismilia braziliensis Verril, 1968 es endémico de la costa este de Brasil y representa una de las principales especies constructoras de arrecifes coralinos en dicha region. Este coral se encuentra bajo la amenaza de extincion debido la reciente propagacion de la enfermedad llamada la plaga blanca (PB). Pese los fuertes impactos, los factores ambientales responsables por epidemias de la PB aún son poco conocidos. En este estudio se describe la prevalencia estacional de la PB en M. braziliensis en el Banco de Abrolhos, ubicado en la costa sur de Bahia, Brasil. Estimaciones in situ comprueban que la prevalencia de esta molestia ha sido cerca de 4,5 veces mayor en verano (enero de 2007, temperatura media del agua superficial del mar 27,4°C), que en invierno (julio de 2007; 25,0°C). Este resultado sugiere que la prevalencia de la enfermedad PB en M. braziliensis es dependiente de la temperatura, reforzando la hipótesis de que los océanos mas cálidos estén facilitando la propagacion de enfermedades coralígenas en todo el mundo.

Palabras clave: enfermedades de corales, resiliencia de los arrecifes, estrés térmico, Banco de Abrolhos, Atlántico sudoccidental, Brasil.

The severity and distribution of coral diseases is increasing worldwide, currently representing a major threat to coral reef ecosystems (Harvell et al., 1999; Rosenberg & Ben-Haim, 2002). In the tropical South Atlantic (Brazil), the occurrence of coral diseases was only recently described (Francini-Filho et al., 2008). White-plague like (WPL) disease is the most common type of disease in the region, affecting primarily a major reef-building species, the Brazilian endemic coral Mussismilia braziliensis Verril, 1968. Progression rate of WPL disease on M. braziliensis during the summer was estimated at 0.18 ± 0.06 mm day-1 (Francini-Filho et al., 2008). In addition, it has been demonstrated that the microbial assemblages associated with diseased versus healthy M. braziliensis colonies are different (Reis et al., 2009). Despite these recent developments, environmental factors contributing to high prevalence of WPL disease in Brazilian reefs are still unknown. This study describes the seasonality in prevalence of WPL disease affecting M. braziliensis, thus allowing for the evaluation of the role of elevated sea surface temperature (SST) as a trigger for this disease.

Observations were undertaken on the Abrolhos Bank, eastern Brazil, where the largest and richest coral reefs in the South Atlantic are concentrated (Leao & Kikuchi, 2001). The Abrolhos region is a biodiversity hotspot and a priority area for conservation (Werner et al., 2000; Moura, 2003). Depths in the region rarely exceed 30 m and reef structures display a characteristic form of mushroom-shaped pinnacles. Disease prevalence was determined in the austral summer (17-20 January 2007) and winter (3-6 July 2007) at two sites (Pedra de Leste and Timbebas) (Fig. 1), by using belt transects (1x10 m). Four replicate transects were laid randomly per site per season, in depths ranging 4-6 m. All colonies of M. braziliensis within each transect were counted, measured to its mean diameter (as calculated by averaging the smaller and larger diameters) and recorded as healthy or diseased. Differences in disease prevalence between sites and seasons were evaluated using two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) (Zar, 1999). SST records for the sampling periods were obtained from NOAA AVHRR Pathfinder Version 5.0 satellite derived monthly data, with night time algorithm to avoid diurnal heat bias.

Figure 1. Map of the Abrolhos Bank, showing study sites and marine protected areas. Sites: 1. Pedra de Leste, 2. Timbebas.

Figura 1. Mapa del Banco de Abrolhos evidenciando los sitios de estudio y las areas marinas protegidas. Sitios: 1. Pedra de Leste, 2. Timbebas.

White-plague like disease prevalence during summer (mean SST = 27.4°C) was about 4.5 times greater than during winter (mean SST = 25.0°C), with a significant difference between seasons (F = 8.66, P = 0.01). The interaction between reef area and year was not significant (F = 0.96, P = 0.34), indicating that the temporal variation in disease prevalence was spatially consistent. No significant difference in WPL disease prevalence was recorded between the two sites (F = 0.08, P = 0.78; Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Prevalence (mean + standard error) of white-plague like (WPL) disease on the reef coral Mussismilia braziliensis during summer and winter of 2007 at two sites.

Figura 2. Prevalencia (media + error estándar) de la enfermedad de la plaga blanca (WPL) en el coral Mussismilia braziliensis durante el verano y el invierno de 2007 en los dos sitios de muestreo.

The positive relationship between SST and coral diseases is now a well established pattern (Rosenberg et al., 1999; Rosenberg & Ben-Hain, 2002; Bruno et al., 2007). Elevated SST may favor diseases by lowering coral resistance and/or by facilitating growth, virulence, and rates of transmission of pathogens (Ben-Haim et al., 2003; Boyett et al., 2007). For example, increased temperature leads to the expression of virulence genes in Vibrio shiloi and to the consequent production of toxins that inhibit photosynthesis and lyse zooxanthellae of the coral Oculina patagonia from the Mediterranean Sea (Toren et al., 1998; Ben-Haim et al., 1999). A similar mechanism was recorded for V corallilyticus while infecting the reef coral Pocillopora damicornis (Ben-Haim et al., 2003). Direct lysis and death of the coral tissue is caused by bacterial extracellular proteases produced during warmer conditions (Ben-Haim & Rosenberg, 2002; Ben-Haim et al., 2003). Thus, higher SST is probably the most important factor leading to high prevalence levels of WPL disease during summer in the Abrolhos Bank. Similarly, relatively higher prevalence values were recorded for black band and other diseases during summer on the Great Barrier Reef (Willis et al., 2004; Jones et al., 2004) and Caribbean (Edmunds 1991; Kuta & Richardson, 1996; Porter et al., 1999). Although the causative agents of WPL disease on M. braziliensis were not yet identified, its spreading and temperatura -dependent nature strongly suggests an infectious disease (Ben-Haim & Rosenberg, 2002). Furthermore, although not significant, the higher prevalence recorded at Timbebas in comparison to Pedra de Leste may be due to the higher coral cover in this former site (see Fancini-Filho et al., 2008). Bruno et al. (2007) found a positively relationship between coral cover and white syndrome on the Great Barrier Reef, a result that corroborates for a model of an infectious disease (Anderson & May, 1979).

The compromised-host hypothesis suggests that coral-hosts are more susceptible to diseases during periods of greater environmental stress (Lesser et al., 2007). Following this hypothesis, corals are expected to be more stressed during summer than winter, as SST and irradiance levels (two widely recognized sources of stress to corals) are relatively higher in the former season. Coral reefs in the Abrolhos Bank experience strong seasonality in water turbidity, with higher turbidity values recorded in winter than summer (Leao & Kikuchi, 2001). This may lead to relatively low light levels during winter, thus mitigating the temperature/irradiance damage to corals and decreasing WPL disease prevalence.

Seasonality in zooxanthellae densities and chlorophyll-a and c concentrations was observed in the Caribbean (Fitt et al., 2000), Indo-Pacific (Brown et al., 1999) and northeastern Brazil (Costa et al., 2005), with lower values recorded in summer than in winter. Several studies show that disease impacts are greater in bleached corals (i.e. corals showing lower densities of zooxanthellae and/or pigments) in comparison to healthy ones (Fitt et al., 2001; Jones et al., 2004; Miller et al., 2006, 2008). Thus, it would be interesting to evalúate the possible relationship between bleaching incidence and disease susceptibility in M. braziliensis.

Because SST are expected to increase in the next decades, catastrophic coral cover declines due to bleaching and disease are predicted (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999; Francini-Filho et al., 2008). In fact, in some cases they have already occurred. For example, in the last three decades the corals Acropora cervicornis and A. palmata have suffered a massive and unprecedented decline due to white-band disease in the Caribbean, which was possibly triggered by elevated SST (Aronson et al., 2002).

Not all bacteria are harmful to corals. Some of them may benefit the coral host by fixing nitrogen, degrading indigestible material and by serving as a direct source of food (Reshef et al., 2006; Chimetto et al., 2008). Most importantly, certain bacteria may produce antibiotics that are active against pathogenic bacteria, thus increasing coral resistance to disease (Reshef et al., 2006; Reis et al., 2009). Considering this latter fact Reshef et al. (2006) proposed that bacteria associated with corals may evolve rapidly in response to environmental disturbance, particularly elevated SST, thus allowing for the development of resistance against diseases (the so called Coral Probiotic Hypothesis). One example of such rapid adaptive response is that of O. patagonia, which has developed resistance to the once prevalent infectious disease caused by V. shiloi. Although the exact mechanisms are still unknown, it is likely that bacteria associated with O. patagonia are promoting lysis of V. shiloi (Reshef et al., 2006).

A central question to the future of coral reefs is whether bacterial associated with reef corals are capable to adapt as fast as needed in face of rapid climate change and accelerated human impacts. To answer this question continued in situ monitoring efforts and the development of microbiological studies particularly designed to understand the adaptive capacity of bacteria associated to corals are urgently needed.


We thank G.F. Dutra for advice on the research. G. Fiuza-Lima, D. Lima Araújo, C.M. Ferreira, E.O.C. Coni, E.M. Chaves and I. Cruz for field assistance. D.S. Lisboa and D. Klein provided SST data. P. Rosamiglia and C. Hackradt for helping with the translation of the abstract and figure legends. Parque Nacional Marinho de Abrolhos/ICMBio (through M. Lourenco) for logistical support and research permits. Financial support was provided by the Fundação de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo, International Society for Reefs Studies, the Global Conservation Fund, CNPq/ProAbrolhos, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Grants, BP Conservation Programme, and Conservation International. R.K. benefit with CNPq fellowship. This is contribution number 10 of the Marine Management Áreas Science Program, Brazil Node.



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Corresponding author: Ronaldo Francini-Filho (

Received: 10 June 2009; Accepted: 3 May 2010