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Site fidelity facilitates pair formation in aggregations of coral reef cardinalfish

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Colonial animals often form stable pair bonds, returning to the same site to breed with the same partner every year. Familiarity with both partner and breeding site has the potential to enhance an individual’s reproductive success. However, it is often unknown whether the mating system arises because of site fidelity, mate fidelity or both. Here, observational and experimental studies are used to identify causal links between site fidelity and pair formation in a group-living coral reef cardinalfish, Sphaeramia nematoptera. A long-term field tagging study was undertaken to quantify site and mate attachment. This was followed by both mate removal and mate transplant experiments to test whether the prolonged association with home sites was primarily because of mate or site fidelity. Adult S. nematoptera exhibited a prolonged association with home sites and partners, with some pairs lasting more than 4 months at the same site. A Bayesian mixed effect model showed that individuals in pairs were more likely to remain site attached, regardless of sex and maturity. Following mate removal, 78% of S. nematoptera found a new partner within 2 weeks on the same site, supporting the hypothesis that individuals primarily exhibit site fidelity. This was confirmed by the partner translocation experiment, with only 1 of 24 fish following their translocated partner to a new site. In these cardinalfish, strong site attachment facilitates long-lasting pair bonds, as well as new pair formation when necessary, suggesting that site rather than mate fidelity is the major driver of the reproductive system.

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This study was conducted in association with Mahonia Na Dari Research and Conservation Centre near Kimbe, West New Britain Province (PNG). We would like to thank the Tamare and Kilu communities for allowing access to their reefs and land. We would like to thank Tiffany Sih, James White, Patrick Smallhorn-West and Mat Vickers for field assistance, and Simon Brandl and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on the manuscript. This study was conducted in accordance with JCU Ethics Committee, Approval number A1847, and all applicable institutional and/or national guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Funding was provided by Australian Research Council (Grant no. CE140100020).

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TR, NMG and GPJ originally formulated the idea and developed methodology, TR conducted fieldwork, TR performed statistical analyses, and TR, NMG and GPJ wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Theresa Rueger.

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Communicated by Aaron J. Wirsing.

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Rueger, T., Gardiner, N.M. & Jones, G.P. Site fidelity facilitates pair formation in aggregations of coral reef cardinalfish. Oecologia 186, 425–434 (2018).

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