Vortical ciliary flows actively enhance mass transport in reef corals

Orr H. Shapiro, Vicente I. Fernandez, Melissa Garren, Jeffrey S. Guasto, François P. Debaillon-Vesque, Esti Kramarsky-Winter, Assaf Vardi, Roman Stocker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Scopus citations


The exchange of nutrients and dissolved gasses between corals and their environment is a critical determinant of the growth of coral colonies and the productivity of coral reefs. To date, this exchange has been assumed to be limited by molecular diffusion through an unstirred boundary layer extending 1-2 mm from the coral surface, with corals relying solely on external flow to overcome this limitation. Here, we present direct microscopic evidence that, instead, corals can actively enhance mass transport through strong vortical flows driven by motile epidermal cilia covering their entire surface. Ciliary beating produces quasi-steady arrays of counterrotating vortices that vigorously stir a layer of water extending up to 2 mm from the coral surface. We show that, under low ambient flow velocities, these vortices, rather than molecular diffusion, control the exchange of nutrients and oxygen between the coral and its environment, enhancing mass transfer rates by up to 400%. This ability of corals to stir their boundary layer changes the way that we perceive the microenvironment of coral surfaces, revealing an active mechanism complementing the passive enhancement of transport by ambient flow. These findings extend our understanding of mass transport processes in reef corals and may shed new light on the evolutionary success of corals and coral reefs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13391-13396
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number37
StatePublished - 16 Sep 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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