Coral Reefs

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 1–11 | Cite as

Coupled dynamics of territorial damselfishes and juvenile corals on the reef crest

  • J. M. CaseyEmail author
  • J. H. Choat
  • S. R. Connolly


Territories of grazing fishes in the family Pomacentridae have been documented to cover a substantial proportion of shallow, exposed coral reef fronts, and these fishes can have profound effects on benthic community composition, including the recruitment and post-settlement survival of scleractinian corals. However, current studies of territorial grazer effects on corals have focused on back-reef habitats. Territorial damselfishes occur in distinct behavioural guilds ranging from indeterminate territorial grazers with thin algal turfs and low rates of territorial aggression to intensive territorial grazers with thick turfs and high rates of aggression. To determine the impact of territorial grazers on the establishment of juvenile corals, we surveyed the reef crest habitat of Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, using fixed transects to assess the effects of indeterminate and intensive territorial grazers on juvenile coral abundance and taxonomic composition. In addition, the turnover of territorial pomacentrids was monitored as well as the effects of turnover on juvenile coral assemblages. Intensive territorial grazers were associated with a significantly lower juvenile coral abundance (34 % decrease), but neither intensive nor indeterminate grazer territories impacted juvenile coral taxonomic composition. Over the course of 1 yr, there was a high rate of territorial turnover (39.7 %). Turnover from control plots to intensive damselfish territories was accompanied by a 44 % decrease in juvenile corals; conversely, turnover from intensive damselfish territories to control plots coincided with a 48 % increase in juvenile corals. These findings reveal two main conclusions. Firstly, the association between damselfish territories and the abundance and spatial turnover of juvenile corals strongly implies that territorial grazers have a negative effect on juvenile coral populations. Secondly, the unexpectedly high temporal turnover of damselfish territories indicates that damselfish–coral–algae linkages are highly dynamic, may be extensively influenced by local-scale effects, and have the potential to impact the structure of coral assemblages on coral reef fronts.


Territorial damselfish Juvenile corals Coral reefs Spatial turnover Benthic dynamics 



We thank Lizard Island Research Station and MS Pratchett for field support, and KD Anderson, SA Blowes, SJ Brandl, and ML Trapon for assistance in the field. We also thank the Ecological Modelling Group at James Cook University, SJ Brandl, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments that improved the manuscript. All work was carried out under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Permits No: G09/32834.1 and No: G11/34774.1. Funds were provided by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.College of Marine and Environmental SciencesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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