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Coral species composition drives key ecosystem function on coral reefs

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Article number20192214
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>19/02/2020
<mark>Journal</mark>Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1921
Number of pages9
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date19/02/20
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Rapid and unprecedented ecological change threatens the functioning and stability of ecosystems. On coral reefs, global climate change and local stressors are reducing and reorganizing habitat-forming corals and associated species, with largely unknown implications for critical ecosystem functions such as herbivory. Herbivory mediates coral–algal competition, thereby facilitating ecosystem recovery following disturbance such as coral bleaching events or large storms. However, relationships between coral species composition, the distribution of herbivorous fishes and the delivery of their functional impact are not well understood. Here, we investigate how herbivorous fish assemblages and delivery of two distinct herbivory processes, grazing and browsing, differ among three taxonomically distinct, replicated coral habitats. While grazing on algal turf assemblages was insensitive to different coral configurations, browsing on the macroalga Laurencia cf. obtusa varied considerably among habitats, suggesting that different mechanisms may shape these processes. Variation in browsing among habitats was best predicted by the composition and structural complexity of benthic assemblages (in particular the cover and composition of corals, but not macroalgal cover), and was poorly reflected by visual estimates of browser biomass. Surprisingly, the lowest browsing rates were recorded in the most structurally complex habitat, with the greatest cover of coral (branching Porites habitat). While the mechanism for the variation in browsing is not clear, it may be related to scale-dependent effects of habitat structure on visual occlusion inhibiting foraging activity by browsing fishes, or the relative availability of alternate dietary resources. Our results suggest that maintained functionality may vary among distinct and emerging coral reef configurations due to ecological interactions between reef fishes and their environment determining habitat selection.