Coral Diseases

blackband disease
This large brain coral is being attacked by black-band disease. This is the only coral disease that can be successfully treated. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Andy Bruckner, NOAA)

Coral diseases generally occur in response to biological stresses, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, and nonbiological stresses, such as increased sea surface temperatures, ultraviolet radiation and pollutants. One type of stress may exacerbate the other (NMFS, 2001).

The frequency of coral diseases has increased significantly over the last 10 years, causing widespread mortality among reef-building corals. Many scientists believe the increase is related to deteriorating water quality associated with human-made pollutants and increased sea surface temperatures. These factors may allow for the proliferation and colonization of microbes. However, exact causes for coral diseases remain elusive. The onset of most diseases likely is a response to multiple factors (NMFS, 2001).

yellowband disease
Yellow-band disease can rapidly spread over a coral, destroying the delicate underlying tissues. On the left is a massive coral in the early stages of attack by yellow band disease. On the right is the same coral several weeks later. Note how rapidly the area of destroyed tissue has expanded. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Andy Bruckner, NOAA)

While the pathologies, or mechanisms by which many diseases act upon the coral polyp are not well known, the effects that these diseases have on corals has been well documented. Black-band disease, discolored spots, red-band disease, and yellow-blotch/band disease appear as discolored bands, spots or lesions on the surface of the coral. Over time, these progress across or expand over the coral’s surface consuming the living tissue and leaving the stark white coral skeleton in their wake. Other diseases, such as rapid wasting, white-band, white-plague and white-pox, often cause large patches of living coral tissue to slough off, exposing the skeleton beneath. Once exposed, the coral’s limestone skeleton can be a fertile breeding ground for algae and encrusting invertebrates. The colonization and overgrowth of the exposed coral skeleton by foreign organisms often results in the health of the entire colony taking a downward spiral from which it seldom recovers.