Coral Reefs

, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 415-428

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Ecomorphology of the eyes and skull in zooplanktivorous labrid fishes

  • L. SchmitzAffiliated withDepartment of Evolution and Ecology, University of California Email author 
  • , P. C. WainwrightAffiliated withDepartment of Evolution and Ecology, University of CaliforniaCenter for Population Biology, University of California


Zooplanktivory is one of the most distinct trophic niches in coral reef fishes, and a number of skull traits are widely recognized as being adaptations for feeding in midwater on small planktonic prey. Previous studies have concluded that zooplanktivores have larger eyes for sharper visual acuity, reduced mouth structures to match small prey sizes, and longer gill rakers to help retain captured prey. We tested these three traditional hypotheses plus two novel adaptive hypotheses in labrids, a clade of very diverse coral reef fishes that show multiple independent evolutionary origins of zooplanktivory. Using phylogenetic comparative methods with a data set from 21 species, we failed to find larger eyes in three independent transitions to zooplanktivory. Instead, an impression of large eyes may be caused by a size reduction of the anterior facial region. However, two zooplanktivores (Clepticus parrae and Halichoeres pictus) possess several features interpreted as adaptations to zooplankton feeding, namely large lens diameters relative to eye axial length, round pupil shape, and long gill rakers. The third zooplanktivore in our analysis, Cirrhilabrus solorensis, lacks all above features. It remains unclear whether Cirrhilabrus shows optical specializations for capturing planktonic prey. Our results support the prediction that increased visual acuity is adaptive for zooplanktivory, but in labrids increases in eye size are apparently not part of the evolutionary response.


Zooplanktivory Labrids Visual acuity Eyeball morphology Adaptation Coral reef fish