, Volume 90, Issue 4, pp 500-508

Habitat selection and juvenile persistence control the distribution of two closely related Caribbean damselfishes

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Summary

On many Caribbean fringing coral reefs, two closely related and ecologically similar damselfishes, the beaugregory (Stegastes leucostictus Müller and Troschel) and the cocoa damselfish (S. variabilis Castelnau), occupy nonoverlapping vertical distributions. In St. Croix (USVI), beaugregory are very abundant in shallow water back reef habitats (1–2 m depth) while cocoa damselfish are restricted to the base of the forereef (10–15 m depth).

In this study, the roles of habitat selection at settlement and juvenile persistence were investigated to determine their influence on this pattern of zonation. Settlement events observed at intervals over a two-year period revealed that habitat selection occurred at settlement and was confined to habitats occupied by adults. In addition, differences in juvenile persistence (due to mortality and/or emigration) were found when species were translocated between depths. Over a period of 100-days, juvenile beaugregory moved from 1 m to 12 m depth suffered four-fold greater losses at the deeper sites than shallow water controls, while translocated cocoa damselfish suffered twice as many losses in shallow water than controls at 12 m depth. Despite these differences in persistence, growth rates of the two species were similar and independent of depth. These results indicate that preferential habitat selection at settlement, perhaps an evolutionary response to differential juvenile mortality, may play a deciding role in determining distributions of ecologically similar species of coral reef fishes.