Ocean Surface Warming: Impact on Toxic Benthic Dinoflagellates Causing Ciguatera


Ciguatera reef fish poisoning is a debilitating human illness in tropical and some subtropical regions. Toxic precursors produced by tropical benthic dinoflagellates are bio‐converted to often more potent toxins and bioaccumulate via the food web in highly sought after table fish. Rising sea surface temperatures are predicted to induce phase shifts on coral reefs. These changes offer increased substrate availability for benthic, toxic dinoflagellates such as Gambierdiscus, Ostreopsis, Prorocentrum and Coolia spp. resulting in range expansions of the causative agents of ciguatera. Ocean currents critically shape the chemical and physical ocean – and coastal environments. Climate change affects wind patterns, which strengthens the East Australian Current forcing warm tropical waters further south. This in turn allows range expansions of ciguatera‐associated dinoflagellates and presumably toxin vectors into nonendemic coastal regions changing the ciguatera‐risk profile for humans and regional and commercial fisheries in affected coastal areas.

Key Concepts:

  • Ciguatera is a human illness induced by trophically converted and accumulated dinoflagellate precursor toxins in sought after tropical – subtropical table fish.

  • Ciguatera‐causing toxins are lipid soluble and heat stable.

  • Climate change leads to rises in sea surface temperatures affecting weather patterns and coastal ecosystems.

  • Climate‐induced ecosystem changes offer new routes for range expansions of toxic, benthic, tropical dinoflagellates and likely toxin vectors through increased suitable substrate availability and geographical expansion of optimal growth temperature.

  • Expansion of toxic dinoflagellates and associated vector species into nonendemic coastal regions has significant socioeconomic implications for humans and fisheries in affected areas.

Keywords: climate change; harmful microalgae; sea surface temperatures (SST); dinoflagellate Gambierdiscus toxicus; ciguatera and ciguatoxins (CTX); marine toxins; global warming; Southern Oscillation Index; East Australian Current (EAC)

Figure 1.

Schematic overview of ocean currents in oceanic regions with endemic ciguatera.

Figure 2.

Schematic overview of oceanic currents off the east coast of Australia and associated sea surface temperature (SST) zones for in current temperatures (black numbers) and surrounding water temperatures (white numbers). (a) Wet season data of SST from mid November 2002 to mid April 2003. (b) Dry season data of SST from mid April to mid November 2003. Data for this figure were derived from the remote‐sensing project conducted by CSIRO between October 1993 and June 2004 (http://www.marine.csiro.au/remotesensing/oceancurrents/delayed/Au_taMS11/#2002).

Figure 3.

Schematic diagram of trophic transfer routes of precursor toxins (gambiertoxins) and biotransformed ciguatoxins (CTX) in marine food webs showing potential toxin vector species involved in ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP).



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Liss PS and Duce RA (2005) The Sea Surface and Global Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 519 pp.

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Heimann, Kirsten, Capper, Angela, and Sparrow, Leanne(Nov 2011) Ocean Surface Warming: Impact on Toxic Benthic Dinoflagellates Causing Ciguatera. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023373]