Enduring regardless the conditions: plasticity in modular growth as a strategy to cope with hydrodynamic variation by the invasive sun-coral (Tubastraea spp.).
The susceptibility of a community to invasions is not the only factor influencing the success of the introduction of non-indigenous species (NIS). Because the conditions of the invaded environment tend to be unpredictable, plastic responses should increase the success of NIS in a new environment. Sun-corals are invaders in the Atlantic Ocean that present a range of strategies and plastic responses to deal with stress and distinct environmental conditions. We experimentally tested the plastic responses of sun-corals when exposed to different predation pressures and hydrodynamics in a recreational marina where sun-corals abundance varies spatially along with the environmental conditions. We separated young sun-coral colonies in two experiments: one controlling the presence of predators and the other manipulating water motion. While predation had no effect, revealing that even small young colonies are somehow protected against predators, corals increased colony area under reduced water motion but grew more polyps under greater water motion. These results highlight that plasticity in modular growth may be important for sun-corals to successfully invade distinct regions despite the hydrodynamic conditions. Increasing the colony area implicate in monopolization of space in calmer waters whilst growing more polyps allows it to have more mouths for feeding in turbulent food-poor waters. This response is particularly interesting as it is similar to the response of another NIS in the same site - the bryozoan Schizoporella errata. Phenotypic plasticity of reproductive strategies, including asexual propagation as observed here, appears to be relevant for modular NIS by facilitating the success on the invasion process in variable habitats.