Phase shift to algal dominated communities at mesophotic depths associated with lionfish (Pterois volitans) invasion on a Bahamian coral reef
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Mesophotic coral reefs (30–150 m) have been assumed to be physically and biologically connected to their shallow-water counterparts, and thus may serve as refugia for important taxonomic groups such as corals, sponges, and fish. The recent invasion of the Indo–Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans) onto shallow reefs of the Caribbean and Bahamas has had significant, negative, effects on shallow coral reef fish populations. In the Bahamas, lionfish have extended their habitat range into mesophotic depths down to 91 m where they have reduced the diversity of several important fish guilds, including herbivores. A phase shift to an algal dominated (>50% benthic cover) community occurred simultaneously with the loss of herbivores to a depth of 61 m and caused a significant decline in corals and sponges at mesophotic depths. The effects of this invasive lionfish on mesophotic coral reefs and the subsequent changes in benthic community structure could not be explained by coral bleaching, overfishing, hurricanes, or disease independently or in combination. The significant ecological effects of the lionfish invasion into mesophotic depths of coral reefs casts doubt on whether these communities have the resilience to recover themselves or contribute to the recovery of their shallow water counterparts as refugia for key coral reef taxa.