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Coral reef mesopredators switch prey, shortening food chains, in response to habitat degradation

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>04/2017
<mark>Journal</mark>Ecology and Evolution
Issue number8
Number of pages10
Pages (from-to)2626-2635
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date18/03/17
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Diet specificity is likely to be the key predictor of a predator's vulnerability to changing habitat and prey conditions. Understanding the degree to which predatory coral reef fishes adjust or maintain prey choice, in response to declines in coral cover and changes in prey availability, is critical for predicting how they may respond to reef habitat degradation. Here, we use stable isotope analyses to characterize the trophic structure of predator-prey interactions on coral reefs of the Keppel Island Group on the southern Great Barrier Reef, Australia. These reefs, previously typified by exceptionally high coral cover, have recently lost much of their coral cover due to coral bleaching and frequent inundation by sediment-laden, freshwater flood plumes associated with increased rainfall patterns. Long-term monitoring of these reefs demonstrates that, as coral cover declined, there has been a decrease in prey biomass, and a shift in dominant prey species from pelagic plankton-feeding damselfishes to territorial benthic algal-feeding damselfishes, resulting in differences in the principal carbon pathways in the food web. Using isotopes, we tested whether this changing prey availability could be detected in the diet of a mesopredator (coral grouper, Plectropomus maculatus). The delta C-13 signature in grouper tissue in the Keppel Islands shifted from a more pelagic to a more benthic signal, demonstrating a change in carbon sources aligning with the change in prey availability due to habitat degradation. Grouper with a more benthic carbon signature were also feeding at a lower trophic level, indicating a shortening in food chains. Further, we found a decline in the coral grouper population accompanying a decrease in total available prey biomass. Thus, while the ability to adapt diets could ameliorate the short-term impacts of habitat degradation on mesopredators, long-term effects may negatively impact mesopredator populations and alter the trophic structure of coral reef food webs.