Coral Reefs

, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 461–471 | Cite as

Effects of different disturbance types on butterflyfish communities of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

  • M. J. Emslie
  • M. S. Pratchett
  • A. J. Cheal


The effects of disturbances on coral reef fishes have been extensively documented but most studies have relied on opportunistic sampling following single events. Few studies have the spatial and temporal extent to directly compare the effects of multiple disturbances over a large geographic scale. Here, benthic communities and butterflyfishes on 47 reefs of the Great Barrier Reef were surveyed annually to examine their responses to physical disturbances (cyclones and storms) and/or biological disturbances (bleaching, outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and white syndrome disease). The effects on benthic and butterflyfish communities varied among reefs depending on the structure and geographical setting of each community, on the size and type of disturbance, and on the disturbance history of that reef. There was considerable variability in the response of butterflyfishes to different disturbances: physical disturbances (occurring with or without biological disturbances) produced substantial declines in abundance, whilst biological disturbances occurring on their own did not. Butterflyfishes with the narrowest feeding preferences, such as obligate corallivores, were always the species most affected. The response of generalist feeders varied with the extent of damage. Wholesale changes to the butterflyfish community were only recorded where structural complexity of reefs was drastically reduced. The observed effects of disturbances on butterflyfishes coupled with predictions of increased frequency and intensity of disturbances sound a dire warning for the future of butterflyfish communities in particular and reef fish communities in general.


Coral reefs Disturbances Butterflyfishes Great Barrier Reef 



We thank the crews of the RVs Sirius, Harry Messel, Cape Ferguson and Lady Basten for support in the field and all members past and present of the AIMS long-term monitoring program who assisted with data collection. Comments from Terry Done, Nick Graham and four anonymous reviewers greatly improved earlier versions of the manuscript.

Supplementary material

338_2011_730_MOESM1_ESM.eps (5.6 mb)
Temporal trends in average hard coral cover on 47 reefs surveyed by the Long Term Monitoring Program. Error bars are 95% Confidence Intervals. Graphs are arranged down the page by latitudinal sector running from north to south: CL = Cooktown-Lizard Island, CA = Cairns, TO = Townsville, WH = Whitsunday, SW = Swains, CB = Capricorn-Bunker. Graphs are then arranged across the page to represent position across the continental shelf: inner-shelf, mid-shelf, outer-shelf. Supplementary material 1 (EPS 5709 kb)
338_2011_730_MOESM2_ESM.eps (6.1 mb)
Temporal trends in total butterflyfish abundance on 47 reefs surveyed by the Long Term Monitoring Program. Graphs are arranged down the page by latitudinal sector running from north to south: CL = Cooktown-Lizard Island, CA = Cairns, TO = Townsville, WH = Whitsunday, SW = Swains, CB = Capricorn-Bunker. Graphs are then arranged across the page to represent position across the continental shelf: inner-shelf, mid-shelf, outer-shelf. Supplementary material 2 (EPS 6274 kb)
338_2011_730_MOESM3_ESM.eps (5.6 mb)
Temporal trends in butterflyfish species richness on 47 reefs surveyed by the Long Term Monitoring Program. Graphs are arranged down the page by latitudinal sector running from north to south: CL = Cooktown-Lizard Island, CA = Cairns, TO = Townsville, WH = Whitsunday, SW = Swains, CB = Capricorn-Bunker. Graphs are then arranged across the page to represent position across the continental shelf: inner-shelf, mid-shelf, outer-shelf. Supplementary material 3 (EPS 5698 kb)
338_2011_730_MOESM4_ESM.doc (132 kb)
Supplementary material 4 (DOC 133 kb)


  1. Adjeroud M, Augustin D, Galzin R, Salvat B (2002) Natural disturbances and interannual variability of coral reef communities on the outer slope of Tiahura (Moorea, French Polynesia): 1991 to 1997. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 237:121–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Adjeroud M, Michonneau F, Edmunds PJ, Chancerelle Y, Lison de Loma T, Penin L, Thibaut L, Vidal-Dupiol J, Salvat B, Galzin R (2009) Recurrent disturbances, recovery trajectories and resilience of coral assemblages on a South Central Pacific reef. Coral Reefs 28:775–780CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Allen GR, Steene R, Allen M (1998) A guide to angelfishes and butterflyfishes. Vanguard Press, Perth, AustraliaGoogle Scholar
  4. Baird AH, Marshall PA (2002) Mortality, growth and reproduction in scleractinian corals following bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 237:133–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bell JD, Galzin R (1984) Influence of live coral cover on coral-reef fish communities. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 15:265–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bell JD, Harmelin-Vivien M, Galzin R (1985) Large scale spatial variation of abundance in butterflyfishes (Chaetodontidae) on Polynesian reefs. Proc 5th Int Coral Reef Symp 5:633–641Google Scholar
  7. Bellwood DR, Hughes TP, Folke C, Nystrom M (2004) Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429:827–832PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Booth DJ, Beretta GA (2002) Changes in a fish assemblage after a coral bleaching event. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 245:205–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bouchon-Navaro Y, Bouchon C, Harmelin-Vivien ML (1985) Impact of coral degradation on a chaetodontid fish assemblage (Moorea, French Polynesia) Proc 5th Int Coral Reef Symp 5:427–432Google Scholar
  10. Bozec YM, Doledec S, Kulbicki M (2005) An analysis of fish-habitat associations on disturbed coral reefs: chaetodontid fishes in New Caledonia. J Fish Biol 66:966–982CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cheal AJ, Wilson SK, Emslie MJ, Dolman AM, Sweatman H (2008) Response of reef fish communities to coral declines on the Great Barrier Reef. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 372:211–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cole AJ, Pratchett MS, Jones GP (2008) Diversity and functional importance of coral-feeding fishes on tropical coral reefs. Fish Fish 9:286–307Google Scholar
  13. Done TJ (1982) Patterns in the distribution in coral communities across the central Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs 1:95–107Google Scholar
  14. Done TJ (1992) Phase shifts in coral reef communities and their ecological significance. Hydrobiologia 247:121–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Emslie MJ, Pratchett MS, Cheal AJ, Osborne K (2010) Great Barrier Reef butterflyfish community structure: the role of shelf position and benthic habitat type. Coral Reefs 29:705–715CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Findley JS, Findley MT (1985) A search for pattern in butterflyfish communities. Am Nat 126:800–816CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Garpe KC, Yahya SAS, Lindahl U, Öhman MC (2006) Long-term effects of the 1998 coral bleaching event on reef fish assemblages. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 315:237–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Graham NAJ, Wilson SK, Jennings S, Polunin NVC, Bijoux JP, Robinson J (2006) Dynamic fragility of oceanic coral reef ecosystems. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 103:8425–8429PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Graham NAJ, McClannahan TR, MacNeil MA, Wilson SK, Polunin NVC, Jennings S, Chabanet P, Clark S, Spalding MD, Letourner Y, Bigot L, Galzin R, Ohman MC, Garpe KC, Edwards AJ, Sheppard CRC (2008) Climate warming, marine protected areas and the ocean scale integrity of coral reef ecosystems. PLoS one 3:1–9Google Scholar
  20. Graham NAJ, Wilson SK, Pratchett MS, Polunin NVC, Spalding MD (2009) Coral mortality versus structural collapse as drivers of corallivorous butterflyfish decline. Biodivers Conserv 18:3325–3336CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Halford A, Thompson AA (1994) Standard Operating Procedure No. 3: Visual Census Surveys of Reef Fish. Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, AustraliaGoogle Scholar
  22. Halford AR, Cheal AJ, Ryan D, DMcB Williams (2004) Resilience to large-scale disturbance in coral and fish assemblages on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Ecology 85:1892–1905CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hoegh-Guldberg O (1999) Climate change, coral bleaching and the future of the world’s coral reefs. Mar Freshw Res 50:839–866CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hoey AS, Bellwood DR (2008) Cross shelf variation in the role of parrotfishes on the Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs 27:37–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hughes TP (1994) Catastrophes, phase shifts and large scale degradation of a Caribbean coral reef. Science 265:1547–1551PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hughes TP, Connell JH (1999) Multiple stressors on coral reefs: A long-term perspective. Limnol Oceanogr 44:932–940CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hughes TP, Graham NAJ, Jackson JBC, Mumby PJ, Steneck RS (2010) Rising to the challenge of sustaining coral reef resilience. Trends Ecol Evol 25:633–642PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jones GP, Syms C (1998) Disturbance, habitat structure and the ecology of fishes on coral reefs. Aust J Ecol 23:287–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Jones GP, McCormick MI, Srinivasan M, Eagle JV (2004) Coral declines threaten fish biodiversity in marine reserves. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101:8251–8253PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lewis AR (1997) Effects of experimental coral disturbance on the structure of fish communities on large patch reefs. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 161:37–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lindahl U, Ohman MC, Schelten CK (2001) The 1997/1998 mass mortality of corals: effects on fish communities. Mar Pollut Bull 42:127–131PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Macgeachy JK, Stearn CW (1976) Boring by macro-organisms in the coral Montastrea annularis on Barbados reefs. Int Rev Gesamten Hydrobiol 61:715–745CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Madin JS, Connolly SR (2006) Ecological consequences of major hydrodynamic disturbances on coral reefs. Nature 444:477–480PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Marshall PA, Baird AH (2000) Bleaching of corals on the Great Barrier Reef: differential susceptibilities among taxa. Coral Reefs 19:155–163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Munday PL (2004) Habitat loss, resource specialization, and extinction on coral reefs. Global Change Biol 10:1642–1647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Norström AV, Nyström M, Lokrantz J, Folke C (2009) Alternative states on coral reefs: beyond coral-macroalgal phase shifts. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 376:295–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Nyström M, Graham NAJ, Lokrantz J, Norström AV (2008) Capturing the cornerstones of coral reef resilience: linking theory to practice. Coral Reefs 27:795–809CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Pratchett MS (2001) Influences of coral symbionts on feeding preferences of crown-of-thorns starfish. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 214:111–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pratchett MS (2005) Dietary overlap among coral-feeding butterflyfishes (Chaetodontidae) at Lizard Island, northern Great Barrier Reef. Mar Biol 148:373–382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Pratchett MS (2010) Changes in coral assemblages during an outbreak of Acanthaster planci at Lizard Island, northern Great Barrier Reef (1995–1999). Coral Reefs. doi: 10.1007/s00338-010-0602-9
  41. Pratchett MS, Berumen ML (2008) Inter-specific variation in distributions and diets of coral reef butterflyfishes (Teleostei: Chaetodontidae). J Fish Biol 73:1730–1747CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Pratchett MS, Wilson SK, Berumen ML, McCormick MI (2004) Sublethal effects of coral bleaching on an obligate coral feeding butterflyfish. Coral Reefs 23:352–356CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Pratchett MS, Pradjakusuma OA, Jones GP (2006a) Is there a reproductive basis to solitary living versus pair formation in coral reef fishes? Coral Reefs 25:85–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Pratchett MS, Wilson SK, Baird AH (2006b) Declines in abundance of Chaetodon butterflyfishes following extensive coral depletion. J Fish Biol 69:1269–1280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Pratchett MS, Marnane MJ, Berumen ML, Eagle JE, Pratchett DJ (2008a) Habitat associations of juvenile versus adult butterflyfishes. Coral Reefs 27:541–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Pratchett MS, Munday PL, Wilson SK, Graham NAJ, Cinner JE, Bellwood DR, Jones GP, Polunin NVC, McClanahan TR (2008b) Effects of climate-induced coral bleaching on coral-reef fishes: ecological and economic consequences. Oceanogr Mar Biol Annu Rev 46:251–296CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ralston S (1980) Aspects of the reproductive biology and feeding ecology of Chaetodon miliaris, a Hawaiian endemic butterflyfish. Environ Biol Fish 6:167–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Reese ES (1975) A comparative field study of the social behaviour and related ecology of reef fishes of the family Chaetodontidae. Z Tierpsychol 37:37–61PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Reese ES (1981) Predation on corals by fishes of the family Chaetodontidae: implications for conservation and management of coral reef systems. Bull Mar Sci 31:594–604Google Scholar
  50. Russ GR (1984) Distribution and abundance of herbivorous grazing fishes in the central Great Barrier Reef. I. levels of variability across the entire continental shelf. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 20:23–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sano M (2004) Short-term effects of a mass coral bleaching event on a reef fish assemblage at Iriomote Island, Japan. Fish Sci 70:41–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sano M, Shimizu M, Nose Y (1984) Changes in the structure of coral reef fish communities by destruction of hermatypic corals: observations and experimental views. Pac Sci 38:51–79Google Scholar
  53. Sano M, Shimizu M, Nose Y (1987) Long-term effects of destruction of hermatypic corals by Acanthaster planci infestation of reef fish communities at Iriomote Island, Japan. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 37:191–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Scheffer M, Carpenter S, Foley JA, Folke C, Walker B (2001) Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature 413:591–596PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Trapon M, Pratchett MS, Penin L (2010) Change in coral cover and composition following 30 years of disturbances at Moorea, French Polynesia. J Mar Biol. doi: 10.1155/2011/807625
  56. Vasquez DP, Simberloff D (2002) Ecological specialisation and susceptibility to disturbance: conjectures and refutations. Am Nat 159:606–623CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Walsh WJ (1983) Stability of a coral reef fish community following a catastrophic storm. Coral Reefs 2:49–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Webster PJ, Holland GJ, Curry JA, Chang HR (2005) Changes in tropical cyclone number, duration and intensity in a warming environment. Science 309:1844–1846PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Williams DMcB (1983) Longitudinal and latitudinal variation in the structure of reef fish communities. In: Baker JT, Carter RM, Sammarco PW, Stark KP (eds) Proceedings of the Great Barrier Reef Conference. JCU Press, Townsville, pp 265–270Google Scholar
  60. Williams DMcB, Hatcher AI (1983) Structure of fish communities on outer slopes of inshore, mid-shelf and outer shelf reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 10:239–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wilson SK, Graham NAJ, Pratchett MS, Jones GP, Polunin NVC (2006) Multiple disturbances and the global degradation of coral reefs: are reef fishes at risk or resilient? Global Change Biol 12:2220–2234CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Wilson SK, Fisher R, Pratchett MS, Graham NAJ, Dulvy NK, Turner RA, Cakacaka A, Polunin NVC, Rushton SP (2008) Exploitation and habitat degradation as agents of change within coral reef fish communities. Global Change Biol 12:2796–2809CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wilson SK, Dolman AM, Cheal AJ, Emslie MJ, Pratchett MS, Sweatman HPA (2009) Maintenance of fish diversity on disturbed coral reefs. Coral Reefs 28:3–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Woodley JD, Chornesky EA, Clifford PA (1981) Hurricane Allen’s impact on Jamaican coral reefs. Science 214:749–755PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

Personalised recommendations