, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 29-50

Fish assemblages across a complex, tropical freshwater/marine ecotone

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Synopsis

Riverine fish assemblages in the temperate zone generally show strong longitudinal patterns of faunal turnover and increases in species richness with increasing stream order. We examined the composition and structure of tropical fish assemblages across a complex freshwater/marine ecotone in Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Species turnover was high between four characteristic habitats that largely corresponded with a longitudinal gradient of stream order over distances of less than 30 km. Suites of common fish species characterized each habitat: creeks, rivers, lagoons, and the sea. In addition to the habitat endemics, several species spanned two habitat types, but only three species were collected in more than two habitats. Multivariate gradient analysis of fish assemblages reflected a gradient of habitats that to some extent corresponded to fluvial distances. Due to the unusual configuration of coastal lagoons lying parallel to the coast, the ordination gradient showed little correlation with linear distance to the coast. Environmental variables related to habitat size and salinity showed greatest correspondence with the fish assemblage ordination gradient. Invertebrate-feeding fishes were the predominant trophic group in 15 of 16 fish assemblages, and inland creek sites contained a greater proportion of herbivores and omnivores than other sites. The relative fraction of herbivorous and detritivorous fishes showed a monotonic decline along the longitudinal habitat gradient from inland to coast. Patterns of species composition and richness at Tortuguero Park appeared to agree well with earlier models of factors influencing temperate zone stream fishes. Headwaters have low aquatic primary productivity and contain small colonizing fish species subject to large fluctuations in local densities and intermittent competition. Lagoons contain both large and small species, the latter being restricted largely to shallow edge habitats by predation. Lagoons exhibit more lentic environmental conditions, experience relatively fewer periodic disturbances than headwaters, and their assemblages are inferred to be under relatively greater influence of biotic factors. Fish assemblages of rivers and caños (swampy side channels and braids) appear to be under less abiotic control than headwaters and influenced less by biotic factors than lagoons.