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Macroalgae removal on coral reefs: realised ecosystem functions transcend biogeographic locations

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Abstract

Coral reef ecosystems are at the forefront of biodiversity loss and climate change-mediated transformations. This is expected to have profound consequences for the functioning of these ecosystems. However, assessments of ecosystem function on reefs are often spatially limited, within biogeographic realms, or rely on presumed proxies such as traits. To address these shortcomings and assess the effects of biogeography and fish presence on the critical ecosystem function of macroalgal removal, we used assays of six algal genera across three reef habitats in two biogeographically distinct locations: Little Cayman in the Caribbean and Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Patterns of fish feeding and realised ecosystem function were strikingly similar between the two geographic locations, despite a threefold difference in the local diversity of nominally herbivorous fishes, a 2.4-fold difference in the diversity of fishes feeding and differences in the biogeographic history of the two locations. In both regions, a single species dominated the function: a surgeonfish, Naso unicornis, at the GBR location and, surprisingly, a triggerfish, Melichthys niger, at the Caribbean location. Both species, especially M. niger, were relatively rare, compared to other nominally herbivorous fishes, in censuses covering more than 14,000 m2 at each location. Our study provides novel insights into the critical function of macroalgal removal in hyperdiverse coral reef ecosystems, highlighting: (a) that function can transcend biogeographic, taxonomic and historical constraints; and (b) shortcomings in our assumptions regarding fish presence and realised ecosystem function on coral reefs.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the staff of Little Cayman Research Center (CCMI) and Lizard Island Research Station, M. Young and H. Sims for field assistance; J. Maddams for video analysis; C. Hemingson, J. Woerner, D. Tracey and T. Saxby for vector images used in the figures; and two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments. Financial support was provided by the Australian Research Council (DRB: grant number CE140100020) and Ian Potter Doctoral Fellowship at Lizard Island (ASH).

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Tebbett, S.B., Hoey, A.S., Depczynski, M. et al. Macroalgae removal on coral reefs: realised ecosystem functions transcend biogeographic locations. Coral Reefs 39, 203–214 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-019-01874-w

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