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Species interactions alter the selection of thermal environment in a coral reef fish


Increasing ocean temperatures and the resulting poleward range shifts of species has highlighted the importance of a species preferred temperature and thermal range in shaping ecological communities. Understanding the temperatures preferred and avoided by individual species, and how these are influenced by species interactions is critical in predicting the future trajectories of populations, assemblages, and ecosystems. Using an automated shuttlebox system, we established the preferred temperature and upper and lower threshold temperatures (i.e., avoided temperatures) of a common coral reef fish, the black-axil chromis, Chromis atripectoralis. We then investigated how the presence of conspecifics, heterospecifics (Neopomacentrus bankieri), or a predator (Cephalopholis spiloparaea) influenced the selection of these temperatures. Control C. atripectoralis preferred 27.5 ± 1.0 °C, with individuals avoiding temperatures below 23.5 ± 0.9 °C and above 29.7 ± 0.7 °C. When associating with either conspecifics or heterospecifics, C. atripectoralis selected significantly lower temperatures (conspecifics: preferred = 21.2 ± 1.4 °C, lower threshold = 18.1 ± 0.8 °C; heterospecifics: preferred = 21.1 ± 1.1 °C, lower threshold = 19.2 ± 0.9 °C), but not higher temperatures (conspecifics: preferred = 28.9 ± 1.2 °C, upper threshold = 30.8 ± 0.9 °C; heterospecifics: preferred = 29.7 ± 1.1 °C, upper threshold = 31.4 ± 0.8 °C). The presence of the predator, however, had a significant effect on both lower and upper thresholds. Individual C. atripectoralis exposed themselves to temperatures ~ 5.5 °C cooler or warmer (lower threshold: 18.6 ± 0.5 °C, upper threshold: 35.2 ± 0.5 °C) than control fish before moving into the chamber containing the predator. These findings demonstrate how behavioural responses due to species interactions influence the thermal ecology of a tropical reef fish; however, there appears to be limited scope for individuals to tolerate higher temperatures unless faced with the risk of predation.

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Availability of data and materials

The data used in the current study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

The code used in the current study is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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The authors would like to thank the Orpheus Island Research Station, Teish Prescott, and Kelly Hannan for field assistance, Sybille Hess for assistance in animal husbandry, Connor Gervais for his insightful editorial guidance, and the Marine Aquaculture Research Facilities Unit at JCU for their laboratory assistance.


Funding was provided by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (J.L.R. and A.S.H.)

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Authors and Affiliations



TJN, JLJ, JLR, and ASH conceived and designed the experiments. TJN performed the experiment, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript. All authors provided significant technical support and editorial guidance.

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Correspondence to Tiffany J. Nay.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable institutional and national guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed (animal ethics approval from the JCU Animal Ethics Committee Approval Numbers A2316).

Additional information

Communicated by Stuart Sandin.

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Supplementary file1 (DOCX 133 KB)

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Nay, T.J., Johansen, J.L., Rummer, J.L. et al. Species interactions alter the selection of thermal environment in a coral reef fish. Oecologia 196, 363–371 (2021).

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