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Rapid resource depletion on coral reefs disrupts competitor recognition processes among butterflyfish species

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

Article number20222158
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>11/01/2023
<mark>Journal</mark>Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1990
Number of pages9
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date4/01/23
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Avoiding costly fights can help conserve energy needed to survive rapid environmental change. Competitor recognition processes help resolve contests without escalating to attack, yet we have limited understanding of how they are affected by resource depletion and potential effects on species coexistence. Using a mass coral mortality event as a natural experiment and 3770 field observations of butterflyfish encounters, we test how rapid resource depletion could disrupt recognition processes in butterflyfishes. Following resource loss, heterospecifics approached each other more closely before initiating aggression, fewer contests were resolved by signalling, and the energy invested in attacks was greater. By contrast, behaviour towards conspecifics did not change. As predicted by theory, conspecifics approached one another more closely and were more consistent in attack intensity yet, contrary to expectations, resolution of contests via signalling was more common among heterospecifics. Phylogenetic relatedness or body size did not predict these outcomes. Our results suggest that competitor recognition processes for heterospecifics became less accurate after mass coral mortality, which we hypothesize is due to altered resource overlaps following dietary shifts. Our work implies that competitor recognition is common among heterospecifics, and disruption of this system could lead to suboptimal decision-making, exacerbating sublethal impacts of food scarcity.