Mutualist-induced morphological changes enhance growth and survival of corals.
Species interactions can induce morphological changes in organisms that affect their subsequent growth and survival. In Moorea, French Polynesia, epibiotic gammaridean amphipods induce the formation of long, branch-like coral “fingers” on otherwise flat, encrusting, or plating Montipora coral colonies. The fingers form as corals encrust tubes built by the amphipods and lead to significant changes in colony morphology. This study examines the costs and benefits of this association to the amphipods and corals and demonstrates that the interaction is a mutualism. Amphipods gain protection from predators by living within corals, and corals benefit by enhanced growth and survival. Benefits to the coral arise through direct effects due to the amphipods’ presence as well as through benefits derived from the altered colony morphology. This study demonstrates that induced morphological plasticity can be a mechanism for facilitation, adding to our knowledge of the roles mutualism, and phenotypic plasticity play in ecology.