, Volume 29, Issue 3, pp 537-546
Date: 08 Apr 2010

Influence of habitat degradation on fish replenishment

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Temperature-induced coral bleaching is a major threat to the biodiversity of coral reef ecosystems. While reductions in species diversity and abundance of fish communities have been documented following coral bleaching, the mechanisms that underlie these changes are poorly understood. The present study examined the impacts of coral bleaching on the early life-history processes of coral reef fishes. Daily monitoring of fish settlement patterns found that ten times as many fish settled to healthy coral than sub-lethally bleached coral. Species diversity of settling fishes was least on bleached coral and greatest on dead coral, with healthy coral having intermediate levels of diversity. Laboratory experiments using light-trap caught juveniles showed that different damselfish species chose among healthy, bleached and dead coral habitats using different combinations of visual and olfactory cues. The live coral specialist, Pomacentrus moluccensis, preferred live coral and avoided bleached and dead coral, using mostly visual cues to inform their habitat choice. The habitat generalist, Pomacentrus amboinensis, also preferred live coral and avoided bleached and dead coral but selected these habitats using both visual and olfactory cues. Trials with another habitat generalist, Dischistodus sp., suggested that vision played a significant role. A 20 days field experiment that manipulated densities of P. moluccensis on healthy and bleached coral heads found an influence of fish density on juvenile weight and growth, but no significant influence of habitat quality. These results suggests that coral bleaching will affect settlement patterns and species distributions by influencing the visual and olfactory cues that reef fish larvae use to make settlement choices. Furthermore, increased fish density within the remaining healthy coral habitats could play an important role in influencing population dynamics.

Communicated by Environment Editor Prof. Rob van Woesik