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Ecological correlates of population density and behavior in the circumtropical black triggerfish Melichthys niger (Balistidae)

Abstract

The remarkable swarming of black triggerfish Melichthys niger (Balistidae) on oceanic islands led us to undertake a comparative ecological study of high-density and low-density populations of this unusual circumtropical species. Abundance, distribution, and aggressive encounters were recorded in the field from the high-density Johnston Atoll (JA) population, the low-density Belize (BE) population, and a local high-density aggregation from Puerto Rico (PR). JA and PR populations of M. niger occurred at significantly higher densities and were more aggregated than in BE. Intraspecific aggression (chases/min/fish) was an order of magnitude higher in BE than in JA, while interspecific aggression was similar among sites. Size frequency, growth rate, diet composition, body condition (liver-somatic index LSI) were assessed from collected specimens. JA grew more slowly than BE as determined by back-calculations from dorsal spine rings, suggesting density-dependent growth limitation. Size frequency analysis reflected this difference with significantly more large fish in the BE sample. Maximum age of triggerfish in both populations was estimated at 11 years, and 35–40% of growth occurred in the first year. Diet composition was similar in all three locations and indicated broad omnivory. Percent organic composition of gut contents (food quality measure) and LSI (body condition assay) were both significantly higher in the PR population, but no difference was detected between JA and BE. An increase in consumption of algae on the degraded PR reef may explain this pattern.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to R. Kosaki, D. Irons, J. Parrish, R. Kavanagh, K.J. Kavanagh, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) Fisheries group, D. Hensley, R. Turingen, the marine park staffs of Belize, Johnston Atoll, and Curacao for assistance with field and laboratory work, and to J. Musick, J. Graves, R. Lipcius, J. Boon, and S. Mallick for comments on early manuscript drafts. This study was funded by a VIMS Student Research Grant and the Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research to␣the senior author. This is VIMS contribution number 2742.

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Correspondence to Kathryn D. Kavanagh.

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Kavanagh, K.D., Olney, J.E. Ecological correlates of population density and behavior in the circumtropical black triggerfish Melichthys niger (Balistidae). Environ Biol Fish 76, 387–398 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10641-006-9044-1

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Keywords

  • Density-dependent growth
  • Density-dependent behavior
  • Oceanic islands
  • Omnivory
  • Coral reef fish