Marine Biology

, Volume 109, Issue 2, pp 335-343

First online:

Lack of avoidance of phenolic-rich brown algae by tropical herbivorous fishes

  • P. D. SteinbergAffiliated withSchool of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney
  • , K. EdyvaneAffiliated withSchool of Biological Sciences, James Cook University
  • , R. de NysAffiliated withDepartment of Chemistry and Biochemistry, James Cook University
  • , R. BirdseyAffiliated withSchool of Biological Sciences, James Cook University
  • , I. A. van AltenaAffiliated withDepartment of Organic Chemistry, University of Adelaide

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High levels of polyphloroglucinol phenolics in marine brown algae are usually interpreted as a defensive response to herbivory. However, tropical brown algae generally contain very low levels of phenolics, even though herbivory in many tropical systems (e.g. coral reefs) is intense. This apparent paradox would be explained if polyphenolics did not deter tropical herbivores, in which case selection by herbivores for high levels of phenolics in tropical algae would be weak. To examine this hypothesis, in February 1989 we presented mixed assemblages of herbivorous fishes on the Great Barrier Reef with tropical, phenolic-poor brown algae (primarilySargassum spp.) and closely related (conspecifics in one instance) phenolic-rich temperate species. Different species of brown algae were eaten at very different rates, but these differences were not correlated with variation in the phenolic levels among the plants. TLC and NMR analyses showed no evidence of other, non-polar, metabolites in these algae, with the exception of the temperate speciesHomoeostrichus sinclairii. Thus, variation in non-polar metabolites also did not explain the differences in susceptibility to herbivores among these algae. We conclude that the herbivorous fishes studied here were not deterred by phenolic-rich algae, which suggests that levels of phenolics in many tropical algae may generally be low due to their ineffectiveness as defences. However, alternative explanations for the pattern are possible, and these are discussed.