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Growth patterns of specialized reef fishes distributed across the Red Sea to Gulf of Aden


Determining how growth rates and body size vary spatially and among reef fish species is important to understanding functional traits and demographic trade-offs. Variability in reef fish growth trajectories may be influenced by intrinsic (e.g., biological, phylogenetic) and extrinsic factors (e.g., environmental), as well as their interaction via ecological processes. To assess interspecific variation in these traits, we estimated age and growth for a guild of butterflyfishes sampled from reefs spanning ~ 10˚ degrees of latitude in the Red Sea to the adjacent Gulf of Aden. This study region was chosen because it spans environmental gradients known to influence fish life history traits and allowed for comparisons between regional versus more widespread butterflyfish species. Across the 10 study species, we found significant interspecific differences in growth. This finding contrasted with almost no intraspecific differences between populations across the study region. Moreover, we found that maximum body size was significantly correlated with the phylogenetic placement of the butterflyfish species. These patterns suggest that intrinsic factors and a high degree of ecological specialization may elicit spatially conservative demographic profiles, even when faced with considerable environmental variation across a region.

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For support in Saudi Arabia, we would like to acknowledge the field support of Malek Amr Gusti, Dream Divers, Tilman Alpermann, Brian Bowen, Michelle R. Gaither, Gerrit Nanninga, Mark Priest, Luiz Rocha, Pablo Saenz-Agudelo, Julia Spaet, the KAUST Coastal and Marine Resources Core Lab, as well as members of the Reef Ecology Lab at KAUST for their assistance with bulk otolith extraction. For field support in Socotra, we thank the Ministry of Water and Environment of Yemen, staff at the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Socotra, and especially Salah Saeed Ahmed, Fouad Naseeb, and Thabet Abdullah Khamis, as well as Ahmed Issa Ali Affrar from Socotra Specialist Tour for handling general logistics. For field support in Djibouti, we thank Nicolas Prévot at Dolphin Divers and the crew of the M/V Deli.


This research was funded by the KAUST Office of Competitive Research Funds (OCRF) under Award No. CRG-1–2012-BER-002 and baseline research funds to MLB, as well as National Geographic Society Grant 9024–11 to JDD.

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J.D.D., J-P.A.H., E.D.L.T., J.H.C., and M.L.B. contributed to study design; J.D.D., B.M.T., J-P.A.H., T.H.S., D.J.C., E.D.L.T., D.L.C., N.M.K., and M.L.B. contributed to sample acquisition and laboratory processing; J.D.D., B.M.T., J-P.A.H., T.H.S., E.D.L.T., D.L.C., and N.M.K. contributed to data analysis and figure production; all authors contributed to manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Joseph D. DiBattista.

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DiBattista, J.D., Taylor, B.M., Hobbs, JP.A. et al. Growth patterns of specialized reef fishes distributed across the Red Sea to Gulf of Aden. Environ Biol Fish 104, 967–976 (2021).

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  • Butterflyfish
  • Coral reef
  • Demographic
  • Growth rate
  • Life history
  • Phylogenetic constraint