Research ArticleECOLOGY

Offshore pelagic subsidies dominate carbon inputs to coral reef predators

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Science Advances  19 Feb 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 8, eabf3792
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf3792


Coral reefs were traditionally perceived as productive hot spots in oligotrophic waters. While modern evidence indicates that many coral reef food webs are heavily subsidized by planktonic production, the pathways through which this occurs remain unresolved. We used the analytical power of carbon isotope analysis of essential amino acids to distinguish between alternative carbon pathways supporting four key reef predators across an oceanic atoll. This technique separates benthic versus planktonic inputs, further identifying two distinct planktonic pathways (nearshore reef-associated plankton and offshore pelagic plankton), and revealing that these reef predators are overwhelmingly sustained by offshore pelagic sources rather than by reef sources (including reef-associated plankton). Notably, pelagic reliance did not vary between species or reef habitats, emphasizing that allochthonous energetic subsidies may have system-wide importance. These results help explain how coral reefs maintain exceptional productivity in apparently nutrient-poor tropical settings, but also emphasize their susceptibility to future ocean productivity fluctuations.

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