Do tabular corals constitute keystone structures for fishes on coral reefs?

Abstract

This study examined the changes in community composition of reef fishes by experimentally manipulating the availability of shelter provided by tabular structures on a mid-shelf reef on the Great Barrier Reef. At locations where access to tabular corals (Acropora hyacinthus and Acropora cytherea) was excluded, a rapid and sustained reduction in the abundance of large reef fishes occurred. At locations where tabular structure was added, the abundance and diversity of large reef fishes increased and the abundance of small reef fishes tended to decrease, although over a longer time frame. Based on their response to changes in the availability of tabular structures, nine families of large reef fishes were separated into three categories; designated as obligate, facultative or non-structure users. This relationship may relate to the particular ecological demands of each family, including avoidance of predation and ultraviolet radiation, access to feeding areas and reef navigation. This study highlights the importance of tabular corals for large reef fishes in shallow reef environments and provides a possible mechanism for local changes in the abundance of reef fishes following loss of structural complexity on coral reefs. Keystone structures have a distinct structure and disproportionate effect on their ecosystem relative to their abundance, as such the result of this study suggests tabular corals may constitute keystone structures on shallow coral reefs.

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Acknowledgments

This study was conducted on Jiigurru in the traditional sea country of the Dingaal people. Thanks to A. Hoey, P. Doherty and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments, D. Buchler, M. Giammusso, J. Rizzari, T. Stephens and H. Welch for assistance in the field, and the staff of Lizard Island Research Station (a facility of the Australian Museum) for invaluable support and facilities. Funding for the project was provided by the Australian Research Council (D. R. B.). Research was conducted under GBRMPA permit #G12/35566.1.

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Correspondence to J. T. Kerry.

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Communicated by Handling Editor Hugh Sweatman

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Kerry, J.T., Bellwood, D.R. Do tabular corals constitute keystone structures for fishes on coral reefs?. Coral Reefs 34, 41–50 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-014-1232-4

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Keywords

  • Acropora
  • Community composition
  • Reef structure
  • Shelter
  • Structural complexity