Case-control design identifies ecological drivers of endemic coral diseases.


Endemic disease transmission is an important ecological process that is challenging to study because of low occurrence rates. Here, we investigate the ecological drivers of two coral diseases-growth anomalies and tissue loss-affecting five coral species. We first show that a statistical framework called the case-control study design, commonly used in epidemiology but rarely applied to ecology, provided high predictive accuracy (67-82%) and disease detection rates (60-83%) compared with a traditional statistical approach that yielded high accuracy (98-100%) but low disease detection rates (0-17%). Using this framework, we found evidence that 1) larger corals have higher disease risk; 2) shallow reefs with low herbivorous fish abundance, limited water motion, and located adjacent to watersheds with high fertilizer and pesticide runoff promote low levels of growth anomalies, a chronic coral disease; and 3) wave exposure, stream exposure, depth, and low thermal stress are associated with tissue loss disease risk during interepidemic periods. Variation in risk factors across host-disease pairs suggests that either different pathogens cause the same gross lesions in different species or that the same disease may arise in different species under different ecological conditions.

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