Environmental Biology of Fishes

, Volume 102, Issue 3, pp 479–497 | Cite as

Are soft coral habitats unfavourable? A closer look at the association between reef fishes and their habitat

  • Hannah E. EpsteinEmail author
  • Michael J. Kingsford


The structural complexity of coral reef environments has a strong influence on the assemblage of reef-associated fishes and invertebrates. These unique ecosystems provide these reef-associated species with a broad range of potential habitats, which offer important resources such as food and shelter. The most studied habitat association on reefs is that of hard coral and fish, where hard coral cover has been found to have a large and positive influence on the assemblage of reef fishes. In contrast, soft coral has been considered poor habitat due to their chemical defences and weak body architecture. However, the empirical basis for this assumption is minimal and the ecological importance of soft corals remains controversial and unresolved. The present study closely examined fish assemblages utilising a mixed mosaic of coral reef habitats at sites ranging from hard to soft coral dominated assemblages. Fishes associated with soft coral in a variety of ways including as shelter, a source of food or a surface on which epiphytic food was sourced. Fish assemblages remained similar between soft and hard coral dominated habitats, and there was no evidence that a high percentage cover of soft coral had deleterious effects. Further, a significant increase in species richness of fishes was found with increasing soft coral cover, suggesting that the importance of soft coral habitat has been underestimated on reefs with a mosaic of different habitats. Here, we discuss the implications of these associations and suggest that soft coral provides distinct habitat for reef fishes, and future research should address their ecological importance.


Soft coral Coral cover Reef fishes Fish assemblage Habitat associations 



April Hall (neé Boaden) and Emma Woods assisted in the field and the staff at Orpheus Island Research Station supported our field logistics. This research was conducted under GBRMPA permit number G13-35909.1 and Animal Ethics number A2207.

Funding information

We would like to thank the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies for funding to MJK and HE.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.AIMS@JCUJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia
  4. 4.College of Science and EngineeringJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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