Coral Reefs

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 683–690 | Cite as

Herbivory versus corallivory: are parrotfish good or bad for Caribbean coral reefs?

  • Peter J. MumbyEmail author


With coral cover in decline on many Caribbean reefs, any process of coral mortality is of potential concern. While sparisomid parrotfishes are major grazers of Caribbean reefs and help control algal blooms, the fact that they also undertake corallivory has prompted some to question the rationale for their conservation. Here the weight of evidence for beneficial effects of parrotfishes, in terms of reducing algal cover and facilitating demographic processes in corals, and the deleterious effects of parrotfishes in terms of causing coral mortality and chronic stress, are reviewed. While elevated parrotfish density will likely increase the predation rate upon juvenile corals, the net effect appears to be positive in enhancing coral recruitment through removal of macroalgal competitors. Parrotfish corallivory can cause modest partial colony mortality in the most intensively grazed species of Montastraea but the generation and healing of bite scars appear to be in near equilibrium, even when coral cover is low. Whole colony mortality in adult corals can lead to complete exclusion of some delicate, lagoonal species of Porites from forereef environments but is only reported for one reef species (Porites astreoides), for one habitat (backreef), and with uncertain incidence (though likely <<10%). No deleterious effects of predation on coral growth or fecundity have been reported, though recovery of zooxanthellae after bleaching events may be retarded. The balance of evidence to date finds strong support for the herbivory role of parrotfishes in facilitating coral recruitment, growth, and fecundity. In contrast, no net deleterious effects of corallivory have been reported for reef corals. Corallivory is unlikely to constrain overall coral cover but contraints upon dwindling populations of the Montastraea annularis species complex are feasible and the role of parrotfishes as a vector of coral disease requires evaluation. However, any assertion that conservation practices should guard against protecting corallivorous parrotfishes appears to be unwarranted at this stage.


Conservation Mortality Coral Herbivore 



I thank the Marine Spatial Ecology Lab for stimulating discussions on this topic and the helpful comments of Laurence McCook and two anonymous referees. Andy Bruckner kindly provided photographs to illustrate the article.


  1. Bak RPM, Engel MS (1979) Distribution, abundance and survival of juvenile hermatypic corals (Scleractinia) and the importance of life history strategies in the parent coral community. Mar Biol 54:341–352CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barlow GW (1975) On the sociobiology of four Puerto Rican parrotfishes (Scaridae). Mar Biol 33:281–293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bellwood DR, Hughes TP, Folke C, Nystrom M (2004) Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429:827–833PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Birkeland C (1977) The importance of rate of biomass accumulation in early successional stages of benthic communities to the survival of coral recruits. Proc 3rd Int Coral Reef Symp: 16–21Google Scholar
  5. Birrell CL, McCook LJ, Willis BL (2005) Effects of algal turfs and sediment on coral settlement. Mar Pollut Bull 51:408–414PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Box SJ (2008) The dynamics of macroalgae on a Caribbean coral reef: Modelling the availability of settlement space and dominant algae and evaluation the effect of macroalgal competition on the growth and survival of juvenile corals. PhD Thesis. University of Exeter, Exeter p146Google Scholar
  7. Box SJ, Mumby PJ (2007) The effect of macroalgal competition on the growth and survival of juvenile Caribbean corals. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 342:139–149CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bruckner AW, Bruckner RJ (1998) Rapid-wasting disease: Pathogen or predator? Science 279:2019–2025CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bruckner AW, Bruckner RJ, Sollins P (2000) Parrotfish predation on live coral: ‘spot biting’ and ‘focused biting’. Coral Reefs 19:50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bruggemann JH, Begeman J, Bosma EM, Verburg P, Breeman AM (1994a) Foraging by the stoplight parrotfish Sparisoma viride. II. Intake and assimilation of food, protein and energy. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 106:57–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bruggemann JH, Kuyper MWM, Breeman AM (1994b) Comparative analysis of foraging and habitat use by the sympatric Caribbean parrotfish Scarus vetula and Sparisoma viride (Scaridae). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 112:51–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bruggemann JH, van Kessel AM, van Rooij JM, Breeman AM (1996) Bioerosion and sediment ingestion by the Caribbean parrotfish Scarus vetula and Sparisoma viride: Implications of fish size, feeding mode and habitat use. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 134:59–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Burkepile DE, Hay ME (2006) Herbivore vs. Nutrient control of marine primary producers: Context-dependent effects. Ecology 87:3128–3139PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Burkepile DE, Hay ME (2008) Herbivore species richness and feeding complementarity affect community structure and function of a coral reef. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 42:16201–16206CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bythell JC, Gladfelter EH, Bythell M (1993) Chronic and catastrophic natural mortality of three common Caribbean reef corals. Coral Reefs 12:143–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Bythell JC, Hillis-Starr ZM, Rogers CS (2000) Local variability but landscape stability in coral reef communities following repeated hurricane impacts. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 204:93–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Carpenter RC (1986) Partitioning herbivory and its effects on coral reef algal communities. Ecol Monogr 56:345–363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Chasqui-Velasco L, Alvarado E, Acero A, Zapata FA (2007) Effect of herbivorous and corallivorous fishes on the survival of transplanted corals in the colombian Caribbean. Rev Biol Trop 55:825–837PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Done TJ, Ogden JC, Wiebe WJ, Rosen BR (1996) Biodiversity and ecosystem function of coral reefs. In: Mooney HA, Cushman JH, Medina E, Sala OE, Schulze E-D (eds) Functional roles of biodiversity: A global perspective. John Wiley & Sons, pp 393–429Google Scholar
  20. Edmunds PJ (2002) Long-term dynamics of coral reefs in St. John, US Virgin Islands. Coral Reefs 21:357–367Google Scholar
  21. Edmunds PJ, Elahi R (2007) The demographics of a 15-year decline in cover of the Caribbean reef coral Montastraea annularis. Ecol Monogr 77:3–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Foster NL, Baums IB, Mumby PJ (2007) Sexual vs. Asexual reproduction in an ecosystem engineer: The massive coral Montastraea annularis. J Anim Ecol 76:384–391PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Foster NL, Box SJ, Mumby PJ (2008) Competitive effects of macroalgae on the fecundity of the reef-building coral Montastraea annularis. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 367:143–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Frydl P (1979) The effect of parrotfishes (Scaridae) on coral in Barbados. W I Int Rev Ges Hydrobiol 64:737–748CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gardner TA, Cote IM, Gill JA, Grant A, Watkinson AR (2003) Long-term region-wide declines in Caribbean corals. Science 301:958–960PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Garzon-Ferreira J, Reyes-Nivia MC (2001) Incidence of fish predation on stony corals at four atolls of the archipelago of san andres and providencia (Colombian Caribbean). Bol Inv Mar Cost 30:133–150Google Scholar
  27. Gygi RH (1975) Sparisoma viride (Bonnaterre), the stoplight parrotfish, a major sediment producer on coral reefs of Bermuda. Eclogae Geol Helv 68:327–359Google Scholar
  28. Hay ME (1981) Herbivory, algal distribution, and the maintenance of between-habitat diversity on a tropical fringing reef. Am Nat 118:520–540CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hoegh-Guldberg O, Mumby PJ, Hooten AJ, Steneck RS, Greenfield P, Gomez E, Harvell CD, Sale PF, Edwards AJ, Caldeira K, Knowlton N, Eakin CM, Iglesias-Prieto R, Muthiga N, Bradbury RH, Dubi A, Hatziolos ME (2007) Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Science 318:1737–1742PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hughes TP (1994) Catastrophes, phase shifts, and large-scale degradation of a Caribbean coral reef. Science 265:1547–1551PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hughes TP, Jackson JBC (1985) Population dynamics and life histories of foliaceous corals. Ecol Monogr 55:141–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hughes TP, Rodrigues MJ, Bellwood DR, Ceccarelli D, Hoegh-Guldberg O, McCook L, Moltschaniwskyj N, Pratchett MS, Steneck RS, Willis B (2007) Phase shifts, herbivory, and the resilience of coral reefs to climate change. Curr Biol 17:360–365PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Idjadi JA, Lee SC, Bruno JF, Precht WF, Allen-Requa L, Edmunds PJ (2006) Rapid phase-shift reversal on a Jamaican coral reef. Coral Reefs 25:209–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jompa J, McCook LJ (2002) Effects of competition and herbivory on interactions between a hard coral and a brown alga. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 271:25–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Knowlton N, Jackson JBC (2008) Shifting baselines, local impacts, and global change on coral reefs. Plos Biology 6:215–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kramer PA (2003) Synthesis of coral reef health indicators for the western Atlantic: Results of the agrra program (1997–2000). Atoll Res Bull 496:1–58Google Scholar
  37. Lewis SM (1986) The role of herbivorous fishes in the organization of a Caribbean reef community. Ecol Monogr 56:183–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lirman D (2001) Competition between macroalgae and corals: Effects of herbivore exclusion and increased algal biomass on coral survivorship and growth. Coral Reefs 19:392–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Littler MM, Taylor PR, Littler DS (1989) Complex interactions in the control of coral zonation on a Caribbean reef flat. Oecologia 80:331–340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Mascarelli PE, Bunkley-Williams L (1999) An experimental field evaluation of healing in damaged, unbleached and artificially bleached star coral, Montastraea annularis. Bull Mar Sci 65:577–586Google Scholar
  41. Meesters EH, Wesseling I, Bak RPM (1996) Partial mortality in three species of reef-building corals and the relation with colony morphology. Bull Mar Sci 58:838–852Google Scholar
  42. Meesters EH, Wesseling I, Bak RPM (1997) Coral colony tissue damage in six species of reef-building corals: Partial mortality in relation with depth and surface area. J Sea Res 37:131–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Miller MW, Hay ME (1998) Effects of fish predation and seaweed competition on the survival and growth of corals. Oecologia 113:231–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mumby PJ (2006) The impact of exploiting grazers (Scaridae) on the dynamics of Caribbean coral reefs. Ecol Appl 16:747–769PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mumby PJ, Steneck RS (2008) Coral reef management and conservation in light of rapidly-evolving ecological paradigms. Trends Ecol Evol 23:555–563PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mumby PJ, Dahlgren CP, Harborne AR, Kappel CV, Micheli F, Brumbaugh DR, Holmes KE, Mendes JM, Box S, Broad K, Sanchirico JN, Buch K, Stoffle RW, Gill AB (2006) Fishing, trophic cascades, and the process of grazing on coral reefs. Science 311:98–101PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Mumby PJ, Hastings A, Edwards HJ (2007a) Thresholds and the resilience of Caribbean coral reefs. Nature 450:98–101PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mumby PJ, Harborne AR, Williams J, Kappel CV, Brumbaugh DR, Micheli F, Holmes KE, Dahlgren CP, Paris CB, Blackwell PG (2007b) Trophic cascade facilitates coral recruitment in a marine reserve. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:8362–8367PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Newman MJH, Paredes GA, Sala E, Jackson JBC (2006) Structure of Caribbean coral reef communities across a large gradient of fish biomass. Ecol Lett 9:1216–1227PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Nugues MM, Bak RPM (2006) Differential competitive abilities between Caribbean coral species and a brown alga: A year of experiments and a long-term perspective. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 315:75–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Nystrom M, Graham NAJ, Lokrantz J, Norstrom A (2008) Capturing the cornerstones of coral reef resilience: Linking theory to practice. Coral Reefs 27:795–809CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Randall JE (1965) Grazing effect on sea grasses by herbivorous fishes in the West Indies. Ecology 46:255–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Reyes-Nivia MC, Garzon-Ferreira J, Rodriquez-Ramirez A (2003) Depradación de coral vivo por peces en el Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, Caribe Colombiano. Rev Biol Trop 52:883–895Google Scholar
  54. Rotjan RD, Lewis SM (2005) Selective predation by parrotfishes on the reef coral Porites astreoides. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 305:193–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Rotjan RD, Lewis SM (2006) Parrotfish abundance and selective corallivory on a belizean coral reef. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 335:292–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rotjan RD, Lewis SM (2008) Impact of coral predators on tropical reefs. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 367:73–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rotjan RD, Dimond JL, Thornhill DJ, Leichter JJ, Helmuth B, Kemp DW, Lewis SM (2006) Chronic parrotfish grazing impedes coral recovery after bleaching. Coral Reefs 25:361–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sanchez JA, Gil MF, Chasqui LH, Alvarado EM (2004) Grazing dynamics on a Caribbean reef-building coral. Coral Reefs 23:578–583Google Scholar
  59. Steneck RS (1988) Herbivory on coral reefs: A synthesis. Proc 6th Int Coral Reef Symp 1:37–49Google Scholar
  60. Steneck RS (1997) Crustose corallines, other algal functional groups, herbivores and sediments: Complex interactions along reef productivity gradients. Proc 8th Int Coral Reef Symp 1:695–700Google Scholar
  61. Tanner JE (1995) Competition between scleractinian corals and macroalgae: An experimental investigation of coral growth, survival and reproduction. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 190:151–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Weil E, Smith G, Gil-Agudelo DL (2006) Status and progress in coral reef disease research. Dis Aquat Org 69:1–7PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Williams DE, Miller MW (2005) Coral disease outbreak: Pattern, prevalence and transmission in Acropora cervicornis. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 301:119–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Williams ID, Polunin NVC (2000) Large-scale associations between macroalgal cover and grazer biomass on mid-depth reefs in the Caribbean. Coral Reefs 19:358–366Google Scholar
  65. Williams ID, Polunin NVC, Hendrick VJ (2001) Limits to grazing by herbivorous fishes and the impact of low coral cover on macroalgal abundance on a coral reef in Belize. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 222:187–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Marine Spatial Ecology Lab, School of BioSciences, Hatherly LaboratoryUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

Personalised recommendations