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Cross-scale Habitat Structure Drives Fish Body Size Distributions on Coral Reefs

Abstract

Despite a large number of studies focusing on the complexity of coral reef habitats and the characteristics of associated fish assemblages, the relationship between reef structure and fish assemblages remains unclear. The textural discontinuity hypothesis, which proposes that multi-modal body size distributions of organisms are driven by discontinuous habitat structure, provides a theoretical basis that may explain the influence of habitat availability on associated organisms. In this study we use fractal techniques to characterize patterns of cross-scale habitat complexity, and examine how this relates to body-depth abundance distributions of associated fish assemblages over corresponding spatial scales. Our study demonstrates that: (1) Reefs formed from different underlying substrata exhibit distinct patterns of cross-scale habitat complexity; (2) The availability of potential refuges at different scales correlates with patterns in fish body depth distributions, but habitat structure is more strongly related to the relative abundance of fish in the body depth modes, rather than to the number of modes; (3) As reefs change from coral- to algal-dominated states, the complexity of the underlying reef substratum may change, presenting a more homogenous environment to associated assemblages; (4) Individual fish body depth distributions may be multi-modal, however, these distributions are not static characteristics of the fish assemblage and may change to uni-modal forms in response to changing habitat condition. In light of predicted anthropogenic changes, there is a clear need to improve our understanding of the scale of ecological relationships to anticipate future changes and vulnerabilities.

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Acknowledgments

This study was funded by the Australian Research Council and the Queensland Smart Futures Fund. We thank Ross Barrett for making the measuring wheels, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Kirsty L. Nash.

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The original idea was conceived by KLN; KLN, NAJG and DRB contributed to study design; KLN, NAJG and SKW performed the research; KLN analysed the data and wrote the first draft; all authors contributed to general paper development.

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Nash, K.L., Graham, N.A.J., Wilson, S.K. et al. Cross-scale Habitat Structure Drives Fish Body Size Distributions on Coral Reefs. Ecosystems 16, 478–490 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-012-9625-0

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Keywords

  • textural discontinuity hypothesis
  • structural complexity
  • rugosity
  • reef degradation
  • coral-dominated reef
  • algal-dominated reef