Marine Biology

, 165:144 | Cite as

Reef-scale variability in fish and coral assemblages on the central Great Barrier Reef

  • Stacy L. BierwagenEmail author
  • Michael J. Emslie
  • Michelle R. Heupel
  • Andrew Chin
  • Colin A. Simpfendorfer
Original paper


Coral reefs are threatened by changing climatic conditions, which will potentially alter the frequency and severity of disturbances in coming decades, casting doubt over the potential for reefs to recover and re-assemble the structure of their fish and coral assemblages. Here, fish and coral assemblages were examined at four reefs similar in size, aspect, disturbance history and latitudinal position from 2006 to 2016. We quantified variation in species and functional level assemblage structure among reefs before and after disturbance and examined whether there was evidence of any recovery. Fish and benthic assemblages varied in density and diversity, but the proportion of fish functional groups was similar among reefs. While some post-disturbance recovery of the benthos was evident, changes in fish functional structure did not uniformly reflect benthic recovery patterns. The apparent disconnect between changes in fish community structure and coral recovery may be due to lagged responses of some fishes post-disturbance, lack of reliance on hard coral cover by some fish trophic groups, or retention of habitat complexity. These results highlight the importance of reef-scale data in determining capacity of coral reefs to recover from disturbance.



We would like to thank the Australian Institute of Marine Science, specifically the Long-Term Monitoring Program team and crew of the RV ‘Cape Ferguson’ for collection of data used in this study. Additional thanks to Mike Cappo and Murray Logan from AIMS, and Rie Hagihara from James Cook University for statistical advice. The comments and suggestions of four reviewers and the subject editor, Dr. Kendall Clements, greatly improved this manuscript.


Access to resources was provided through the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University with no additional funding acquired. We would like to thank the Australian Government and the James Cook University JCUPRS scholarship to SLB for support to undertake the research for this manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest to disclose.

Human and animal rights

All survey and field operations from data collected for this study were operated under approved research permits granted by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Supplementary material

227_2018_3400_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (2.4 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 2463 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries & Aquaculture and College of Science and Engineering, James Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.AIMS@JCU, Australian Institute of Marine Science and College of Science and Engineering, James Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia

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