The exact nature of the relationship between symbiont fauna and their hosts is often unclear, but knowing more about these intricate ecological interactions is vital to understand the trophic positions of host-associated fauna, and can aid in accurate constructions of food-webs on coral reefs. Scleractinian corals are hosts to hundreds of symbiont taxa, including fsh and many invertebrate species. Some of these associated fauna are benefcial to their coral host(s), whereas other taxa can have detrimental efects, yet their impact is often difcult to determine. Coral-dwelling gall crabs (Cryptochiridae) are obligate, often host-specifc, symbionts of scleractinian corals but the nature of this relationship is still under debate. Three Atlantic gall crab species (Kroppcarcinus siderastreicola, Opecarcinus hypostegus and Troglocarcinus corallicola) and their coral hosts’ tissue/mucus were collected from reefs in Guadeloupe. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values were measured for 57 crabs inhabiting host coral colonies belonging to seven diferent coral species (although only 27 colonies from fve coral species were collected), alongside other potential food sources (epilithic algal matrix, plankton and particulate organic matter). The carbon and nitrogen isotope values of gall crabs relative to those of their respective coral host(s) and other possible food sources showed that coral tissue/mucus was the main food source for the crabs. The results of the mixing models further supported this fnding, suggesting that corals are responsible for 40–70% of the crabs’ diet. In T. corallicola, the isotopic signature difered signifcantly between sexes, possibly caused by the high sexual dimorphism observed in this species. Here we showed that Atlantic gall crabs mainly dine on coral tissue and/or mucus excreted by their coral hosts, highlighting their nutritional dependence on their host. However, since coral mucus is continuously exuded by scleractinians, hence the energetic or metabolic drain for corals is expected to be minimal. Gall crabs depend on their coral hosts for settlement cues as larvae, for habitat as adults and - highlighted by this study - for food, essential for their subsistence. This obligate dependence on their hosts for all parts of their life makes them extremely vulnerable to reef degradation, and underlines the importance in understanding the exact nature of a relationship between symbiont and coral host.

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Staff publications

Bravo, Henrique, Dromard, Charlotte R., van der Meer, Marcel T. J., Schleimer, Anna, & van der Meij, S. (2024). Dining on corals: stable isotope evidence for close trophic connection between gall crabs (Cryptochiridae) and their stony coral hosts. Symbiosis, 2024. doi:10.1007/s13199-023-00968-y