Habitat biodiversity as a determinant of fish community structure on coral reefs

Messmer, V.; Jones, G.P.; Munday, P.L.; Holbrook, S.J.; Schmitt, R.J.; Brooks, A.J.

Ecology 92(12): 2285-2298


ISSN/ISBN: 0012-9658
PMID: 22352168
DOI: 10.1890/11-0037.1
Accession: 053470987

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Increased habitat diversity is often predicted to promote the diversity of animal communities because a greater variety of habitats increases the opportunities for species to specialize on different resources and coexist. Although positive correlations between the diversities of habitat and associated animals are often observed, the underlying mechanisms are only now starting to emerge, and none have been tested specifically in the marine environment. Scleractinian corals constitute the primary habitat-forming organisms on coral reefs and, as such, play an important role in structuring associated reef fish communities. Using the same field experimental design in two geographic localities differing in regional fish species composition, we tested the effects of coral species richness and composition on the diversity, abundance, and structure of the local fish community. Richness of coral species overall had a positive effect on fish species richness but had no effect on total fish abundance or evenness. At both localities, certain individual coral species supported similar levels of fish diversity and abundance as the high coral richness treatments, suggesting that particular coral species are disproportionately important in promoting high local fish diversity. Furthermore, in both localities, different microhabitats (coral species) supported very different fish communities, indicating that most reef fish species distinguish habitat at the level of coral species. Fish communities colonizing treatments of higher coral species richness represented a combination of those inhabiting the constituent coral species. These findings suggest that mechanisms underlying habitat-animal interaction in the terrestrial environment also apply to marine systems and highlight the importance of coral diversity to local fish diversity. The loss of particular key coral species is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the biodiversity of associated fish communities.