Marine Biology

, 164:29 | Cite as

Rapid decline and decadal-scale recovery of corals and Chaetodon butterflyfish on Philippine coral reefs

  • Garry R. Russ
  • Susannah M. Leahy
Original paper


Environmental disturbances to benthic habitat on coral reefs can affect fish assemblages, with dietary specialists like corallivorous Chaetodon butterflyfishes particularly sensitive to declines in hard coral cover. However, declines in density of corallivorous Chaetodon due to declines in hard coral cover are usually documented for individual environmental disturbances, often with limited quantification of post-disturbance recovery. Here, we documented effects of hard coral loss and recovery on the Chaetodon assemblage for 31 years at four sites in the Philippines. In this long-term “natural experiment”, we documented five environmental disturbance events (two typhoons, two mass coral bleaching events, and one period of destructive fishing) that reduced live branching hard coral cover on average by 61% and density of corallivorous butterflyfish by 47%, with an average duration of decline of 2 years. On average, these disturbance events resulted in an 8% annual decrease in absolute coral cover. We also monitored five periods of hard coral and butterflyfish recovery, with an average 202% increase in branching hard coral cover over 11 years, and a 196% increase in density of corallivorous butterflyfish over 12 years. On average, these recovery periods had a 2.4% annual rate of increase in absolute coral cover. The density of butterflyfish was not significantly affected by marine reserve protection, and thus, changes in butterflyfish density were most likely driven by change in benthic habitat. Assemblage structure of Chaetodon at each site was distinct and remained remarkably consistent for 31 years, despite substantial declines and recovery of coral cover. The difference in the rates of decline and recovery of butterflyfish raises concerns for the persistence of this iconic taxon in the face of increasing frequency and intensity of environmental disturbances to coral reefs.


Coral Reef Coral Cover Assemblage Structure Environmental Disturbance Benthic Cover 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Thanks to J. Rizarri and R. Jones for statistical advice, to A.C. Alcala for 43 years of enthusiastic community facilitation of marine resource management, and to two anonymous reviewers, whose comments greatly improved the manuscript.

Author contributions

GRR conceived of and designed the study and collected the data; SML analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. GRR provided editorial advice.


Financial support to G.R.R. for this research was provided by the United Nations Environment Programme and Natural Resources Ministry Council (1983), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (1985), a Pew Fellowship (1999–2000), an Australian Research Council Discovery grant (2002–2004), and funding from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies (2006–2014).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any work involving the care or use of animals.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Science and EngineeringJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.College of Science and Engineering, and Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability SciencesJames Cook UniversityCairnsAustralia

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