, Volume 182, Issue 1, pp 203–217 | Cite as

Microtopographic refuges shape consumer-producer dynamics by mediating consumer functional diversity

  • Simon J. Brandl
  • David R. Bellwood
Community ecology – original research


Consumer-producer dynamics are critical for ecosystem functioning. In marine environments, primary production is often subject to strong consumer control, and on coral reefs, the grazing pressure exerted by herbivorous fishes has been identified as a major determinant of benthic community structure. Using experimental surfaces, we demonstrate that on coral reefs, microtopographic refuges decrease the overall grazing pressure by more than one order of magnitude. Furthermore, by functionally characterizing consumer communities, we show that refuges also restrict grazer communities to only one functional group, algal croppers, which selectively remove the apical parts of algae. In contrast, detritivorous fishes, which intensively graze flat and exposed microhabitats and can remove both particulate matter and entire stands of algal filaments, are almost entirely excluded. This preclusion of an entire ecosystem process (the removal of particulates) results in two distinct coexisting benthic regimes: communities within refuges are diverse and characterized by numerous algal types and juvenile scleractinian corals, while communities outside refuges support only low-diversity assemblages dominated by simple, unbranched filamentous turf algal mats. Although limited to the scale of a few centimeters, microtopographic refuges can, therefore, mediate the biotic control of community development by affecting both overall grazing rates and the functional diversity of consumer communities. We suggest that the coexistence of two distinct benthic regimes at a small spatial scale may be an important factor for ecosystem functioning and highlight the need to consider the ecological complexity of consumer-producer dynamics when assessing the status of coral reef ecosystems.


Turf algae Reef resilience Herbivory Phase shift Rugosity 



We thank C. E. Mirbach and Lizard Island Research Station for invaluable field support, J. H. Choat for helpful discussions, and D. E. Burkepile and two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments. This study was supported by the Australian Research Council (D. R. B.) and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (S. J. B.). Research was conducted under GBRMPA permit numbers G12/34955.1 and G11/33857.1.

Author contribution statement

S. J. B. and D. R. B. developed the project; S. J. B. collected the data and performed the analyses; S. J. B. and D. R. B. wrote the paper.

Supplementary material

442_2016_3643_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (3.1 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 3212 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.College of Marine and Environmental SciencesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.Tennenbaum Marine Observatories NetworkSmithsonian Environmental Research CenterEdgewaterUSA

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