Researchers in the Florida Keys have determined that coral reefs can be saved from invasive algae with the help of a particular species of crab affectionately called “the reef goat.”
The new study from Florida International University found that not only can the Caribbean king crab chew on algae-free corals faster than all methods involving human hands, but increased coral reproduction sparked a boom in the number of reef fish.
All types of marine habitats are important. Kelp beds and coral reefs play a vital role in the health of the ocean and the health of our communities.
However, in the same way that a cougar, which provides a valuable service when hunting sick or elderly deer, would not help anyone if it were installed in an office building, seaweed greatly prevents coral from playing a key role. in the ecosystem. , just like the lion it would prevent any of the terrified office workers from doing their job.
Researchers comment on your paper on evidence of long-standing competition between algae and corals.
This competition has been heavily influenced for more than a century by overfishing, climate change, and coral disease, resulting in many reefs now being too weak or depleted to compete with seaweed.
Too often, seaweed blocks sunlight from reaching baby corals, while releasing chemicals that prevent corals from reproducing, as well as making them more susceptible to disease.
The voracious reef goats
The researchers hypothesized that, if distributed enough, the Caribbean king crab, the largest herbivorous crustacean in the region, could clear corals without attached algae faster than human scrubbing, so they conducted a case-control study in which they released reef goats on some reefs and let others remain without crabs.
“We have a lot of experience in raising these crabs for human consumption, but I started to analyze what their ecological role was in coral reefs. And they are like reef cows, or better yet, reef goats, because they eat almost any type of algae, and they eat a lot of it, ”Mark Butler from Florida International University, study co-author, saying Florida Keys News.
Butler, who worked on the research with Angelo Jason Spadaro, a professor at the College of the Florida Keys, said the voracious Caribbean king crabs (Maguimithrax spinosissimus) are prolific herbivores on coral reefs.
By eating algae at a higher rate than any other herbivore, including some species that can protect themselves from predation with chemicals or other defense strategies, the crabs were able to reduce algae cover by 80% compared to some reefs, while that increased 3 to 5 times. of baby corals and fish species added to the successful result.
The study also features something that is becoming rare in many scientific fields of study: reproducibility.
“The generality of our results was validated by nearly identical results in two separate field experiments conducted at different locations and in different years,” the authors write.
On dry land, goats have been used as floor cleaners for thousands of years, eating everything from clover and herbs to poison oak and invasive blackberry thorns.
Hopefully, the brilliant results from Butler and his team can solidify Caribbean king crabs as their benthic counterpart on the ocean floor.
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