Journal Of Experimental Biology
Many organisms exhibit depressed metabolism when resources are limited, a change that makes it possible to balance an energy budget. For symbiotic reef corals, daily cycles of light and periods of intense cloud cover can be chronic causes of food limitation through reduced photosynthesis. Furthermore, coral bleaching is common in present-day reefs, creating a context in which metabolic depression could have beneficial value to corals. In the present study, corals (massive Porites spp.) were exposed to an extreme case of resource limitation by starving them of food and light for 20 days. When resources were limited, the corals depressed area-normalized respiration to 37% of initial rates, and coral biomass declined to 64% of initial amounts, yet the corals continued to produce skeletal mass. However, the declines in biomass cannot account for the declines in area-normalized respiration, as mass-specific respiration declined to 30% of the first recorded time point. Thus, these corals appear to be capable of metabolic depression. It is possible that some coral species are better able to depress metabolic rates than others; such variation could explain differential survival during conditions that limit resources (e.g. shading). Furthermore, we found that maintenance of existing biomass, in part, supports the production of skeletal mass. This association could be explained if maintenance supplies needed energy (e.g. ATP) or inorganic carbon (i.e. CO2) that otherwise limits the production of skeletal mass. Finally, the observed metabolic depression can be explained as a change in pool sizes, and does not require a change in metabolic rules.