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Transglobal spread of an ecologically relevant sea urchin parasite

February 8, 2024

Mass mortality of the dominant coral reef herbivore Diadema antillarum in the Caribbean in the early 1980s contributed to a persistent phase shift from coral- to algal-dominated reefs. In 2022, a scuticociliate most closely related to Philaster apodigitiformis caused further mass mortality of D. antillarum across the Caribbean, leading to >95% mortality at affected sites. Mortality was also reported in the related species Diadema setosum in the Mediterranean in 2022, though the causative agent of the Mediterranean outbreak has not yet been determined. In April 2023, mass mortality of Diadema setosum occurred along the Sultanate of Oman's coastline. Urchins displayed signs compatible with scuticociliatosis including abnormal behavior, drooping and loss of spines, followed by tissue necrosis and death. Here we report the detection of an 18S rRNA gene sequence in abnormal urchins from Muscat, Oman, that is identical to the Philaster strain responsible for D. antillarum mass mortality in the Caribbean. We also show that scuticociliatosis signs can be elicited in Diadema setosum by experimental challenge with the cultivated Philaster strain associated with Caribbean scuticociliatosis. These results demonstrate the Philaster sp. associated with D. antillarum mass mortality has rapidly spread to geographically distant coral reefs, compelling global-scale awareness and monitoring for this devastating condition through field surveys, microscopy, and molecular microbiological approaches, and prompting investigation of long-range transmission mechanisms.

Publication Year 2024
Title Transglobal spread of an ecologically relevant sea urchin parasite
DOI 10.1093/ismejo/wrae024
Authors Isabella T. Ritchie, Brayan Vilanova-Cuevas, Ashley Altera, Kaileigh Cornfield, Ceri Evans, James S. Evans, Maria Hopson-Fernandes, Christina A. Kellogg, Elayne Looker, Oliver Taylor, Ian Hewson, Mya Breitbart
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title ISME Journal
Index ID 70252491
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center