We investigated the mechanisms leading to rapid death of corals when exposed to runoff and resuspended sediments, postulating that the killing was microbially mediated.
Microsensor measurements were conducted in mesocosm experiments and in naturally accumulated sediment on corals. In organic-rich, but not in organic-poor sediment, pH and oxygen started to decrease as soon as the sediment accumulated on the coral. Organic-rich sediments caused tissue degradation within 1 d, whereas organic-poor sediments had no effect after 6 d. In the harmful organic-rich sediment, hydrogen sulfide concentrations were low initially but increased progressively because of the degradation of coral mucus and dead tissue.
Dark incubations of corals showed that separate exposures to darkness, anoxia, and low pH did not cause mortality within 4 d. However, the combination of anoxia and low pH led to colony death within 24 h. When hydrogen sulfide was added after 12 h of anoxia and low pH, colonies died after an additional 3 h. We suggest that sedimentation kills corals through microbial processes triggered by the organic matter in the sediments, namely respiration and presumably fermentation and desulfurylation of products from tissue degradation.
First, increased microbial respiration results in reduced O2 and pH, initiating tissue degradation. Subsequently, the hydrogen sulfide formed by bacterial decomposition of coral tissue and mucus diffuses to the neighboring tissues, accelerating the spread of colony mortality. Our data suggest that the organic enrichment of coastal sediments is a key process in the degradation of coral reefs exposed to terrestrial runoff.
National Academy of Sciencest 2012