Coral Reefs

, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 973–984 | Cite as

Diet and cross-shelf distribution of rabbitfishes (f. Siganidae) on the northern Great Barrier Reef: implications for ecosystem function

  • A. S. Hoey
  • S. J. Brandl
  • D. R. Bellwood


Herbivorous fishes are a critical functional group on coral reefs, and there is a clear need to understand the role and relative importance of individual species in reef processes. While numerous studies have quantified the roles of parrotfishes and surgeonfishes on coral reefs, the rabbitfishes (f. Siganidae) have been largely overlooked. Consequently, they are typically viewed as a uniform group of grazing or browsing fishes. Here, we quantify the diet and distribution of rabbitfish assemblages on six reefs spanning the continental shelf in the northern Great Barrier Reef. Our results revealed marked variation in the diet and distribution of rabbitfish species. Analysis of stomach contents identified four distinct groups: browsers of leathery brown macroalgae (Siganus canaliculatus, S. javus), croppers of red and green macroalgae (S. argenteus, S. corallinus, S. doliatus, S. spinus) and mixed feeders of diverse algal material, cyanobacteria, detritus and sediment (S. lineatus, S. punctatissimus, S. punctatus, S. vulpinus). Surprisingly, the diet of the fourth group (S. puellus) contained very little algal material (22.5 %) and was instead dominated by sponges (69.1 %). Together with this variation in diet, the distribution of rabbitfishes displayed clear cross-shelf variation. Biomass was greatest on inner-shelf reefs (112.7 ± 18.2 kg.ha−1), decreasing markedly on mid- (37.8 ± 4.6 kg.ha−1) and outer-shelf reefs (9.7 ± 2.2 kg.ha−1). This pattern was largely driven by the browsing S. canaliculatus that accounted for 50 % of the biomass on inner-shelf reefs, but was absent in mid- and outer-shelf reefs. Mixed feeders, although primarily restricted to the reef slope and back reef habitats, also decreased in abundance and biomass from inshore to offshore, while algal cropping taxa were the dominant group on mid-shelf reefs. These results clearly demonstrate the extent to which diet and distribution vary within the Siganidae and emphasise the importance of examining function on a species-by-species basis.


Coral reef Herbivory Sponge predation Functional group Ecosystem process Macroalgal browsing 



We thank J. Hoey, C. Lefevre, T. Sunderland and P. Wulf for assistance in the field. Comments by J. Hoey, S. Swearer, K. Clements and an anonymous reviewer greatly improved the manuscript. We thank the staff at the Lizard Island Research Station, a facility of the Australian Museum, for invaluable field support. Financial support was provided by The Ian Potter Doctoral Fellowship at Lizard Island (ASH) and the Australian Research Council (ASH, DRB). Research was conducted under GBRMPA permit G07/23636.1.

Supplementary material

338_2013_1043_MOESM1_ESM.doc (2.3 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 2308 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.School of Marine and Tropical BiologyJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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