The dual role of sclerites in a gorgonian coral: Conflicting functions of support and defence

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Abstract

Sclerites in the gorgonian coral Briareum asbestinum perform the dual role of skeletal support against wave action and structural defence against predators. Local populations of B. asbestinum vary along gradients of decreasing water movement and decreasing predator abundance with increasing depth, such that sclerite length increases and sclerite density decreases with depth. Based on this pattern, I explored a possible trade-off between the sclerite composition that is most resistant to tearing versus most deterrent to predatory gastropods. Feeding assays revealed that artificial foods containing longer sclerites and those containing higher volume fractions of sclerites are less palatable to the gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum. However, real colonies appear constrained, in that they do not contain both long sclerites and high volume fractions at the same time. Given a choice among real colonies, snails prefer shallow-water colonies with shorter sclerites e ven though the sclerite volume fractions are high. Although least deterrent to snails, shallow-water colonies are 56% more resistant to tearing than their deep-water counterparts. Hence, variation in sclerite composition among local populations of B. asbestinum may be maintained by opposing selection for support versus defense.

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