Original Paper

Marine Biology

, Volume 157, Issue 12, pp 2739-2750

First online:

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

Acute effects of removing large fish from a near-pristine coral reef

  • Douglas J. McCauleyAffiliated withHopkins Marine Station, Stanford University Email author 
  • , Fiorenza MicheliAffiliated withHopkins Marine Station, Stanford University
  • , Hillary S. YoungAffiliated withBiology Department, Stanford University
  • , Derek P. TittensorAffiliated withBiology Department, Dalhousie University
  • , Daniel R. BrumbaughAffiliated withCenter for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural HistoryInstitute of Marine Sciences, University of California
  • , Elizabeth M. P. MadinAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California
  • , Katherine E. HolmesAffiliated withCenter for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural HistoryMarine Program, Wildlife Conservation Society
  • , Jennifer E. SmithAffiliated withScripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego
  • , Heike K. LotzeAffiliated withBiology Department, Dalhousie University
    • , Paul A. DeSallesAffiliated withBiology Department, Stanford University
    • , Suzanne N. ArnoldAffiliated withDarling Marine Center, University of Maine
    • , Boris WormAffiliated withBiology Department, Dalhousie University


Large animals are severely depleted in many ecosystems, yet we are only beginning to understand the ecological implications of their loss. To empirically measure the short-term effects of removing large animals from an ocean ecosystem, we used exclosures to remove large fish from a near-pristine coral reef at Palmyra Atoll, Central Pacific Ocean. We identified a range of effects that followed from the removal of these large fish. These effects were revealed within weeks of their removal. Removing large fish (1) altered the behavior of prey fish; (2) reduced rates of herbivory on certain species of reef algae; (3) had both direct positive (reduced mortality of coral recruits) and indirect negative (through reduced grazing pressure on competitive algae) impacts on recruiting corals; and (4) tended to decrease abundances of small mobile benthic invertebrates. Results of this kind help advance our understanding of the ecological importance of large animals in ecosystems.