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PLoS One. 2013 Jul 3;8(7):e68533. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068533. Print 2013.

Host-specific interactions with environmental factors shape the distribution of symbiodinium across the Great Barrier Reef.

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ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland, Australia.

Erratum in

  • PLoS One. 2014;9(1). doi:10.1371/annotation/1fb24be5-4809-486e-ae46-0032c2a6c17d.



The endosymbiotic dinoflagellates (genus Symbiodinium) within coral reef invertebrates are critical to the survival of the holobiont. The genetic variability of Symbiodinium may contribute to the tolerance of the symbiotic association to elevated sea surface temperatures (SST). To assess the importance of factors such as the local environment, host identity and biogeography in driving Symbiodinium distributions on reef-wide scales, data from studies on reef invertebrate-Symbiodinium associations from the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) were compiled.


The resulting database consisted of 3717 entries from 26 studies. It was used to explore ecological patterns such as host-specificity and environmental drivers structuring community complexity using a multi-scalar approach. The data was analyzed in several ways: (i) frequently sampled host species were analyzed independently to investigate the influence of the environment on symbiont distributions, thereby excluding the influence of host specificity, (ii) host species distributions across sites were added as an environmental variable to determine the contribution of host identity on symbiont distribution, and (iii) data were pooled based on clade (broad genetic groups dividing the genus Symbiodinium) to investigate factors driving Symbiodinium distributions using lower taxonomic resolution. The results indicated that host species identity plays a dominant role in determining the distribution of Symbiodinium and environmental variables shape distributions on a host species-specific level. SST derived variables (especially SSTstdev) most often contributed to the selection of the best model. Clade level comparisons decreased the power of the predictive model indicating that it fails to incorporate the main drivers behind Symbiodinium distributions.


Including the influence of different host species on Symbiodinium distributional patterns improves our understanding of the drivers behind the complexity of Symbiodinium-invertebrate symbioses. This will increase our ability to generate realistic models estimating the risk reefs are exposed to and their resilience in response to a changing climate.

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