Flat and complex temperate reefs provide similar support for fish: Evidence for a unimodal species-habitat relationship

Paxton, A.B.; Pickering, E.A.; Adler, A.M.; Taylor, J.C.; Peterson, C.H.

Plos one 12(9): E0183906


ISSN/ISBN: 1932-6203
PMID: 28873447
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0183906
Accession: 059743634

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Structural complexity, a form of habitat heterogeneity, influences the structure and function of ecological communities, generally supporting increased species density, richness, and diversity. Recent research, however, suggests the most complex habitats may not harbor the highest density of individuals and number of species, especially in areas with elevated human influence. Understanding nuances in relationships between habitat heterogeneity and ecological communities is warranted to guide habitat-focused conservation and management efforts. We conducted fish and structural habitat surveys of thirty warm-temperate reefs on the southeastern US continental shelf to quantify how structural complexity influences fish communities. We found that intermediate complexity maximizes fish abundance on natural and artificial reefs, as well as species richness on natural reefs, challenging the current paradigm that abundance and other fish community metrics increase with increasing complexity. Naturally occurring rocky reefs of flat and complex morphologies supported equivalent abundance, biomass, species richness, and community composition of fishes. For flat and complex morphologies of rocky reefs to receive equal consideration as essential fish habitat (EFH), special attention should be given to detecting pavement type rocky reefs because their ephemeral nature makes them difficult to detect with typical seafloor mapping methods. Artificial reefs of intermediate complexity also maximized fish abundance, but human-made structures composed of low-lying concrete and metal ships differed in community types, with less complex, concrete structures supporting lower numbers of fishes classified largely as demersal species and metal ships protruding into the water column harboring higher numbers of fishes, including more pelagic species. Results of this study are essential to the process of evaluating habitat function provided by different types and shapes of reefs on the seafloor so that all EFH across a wide range of habitat complexity may be accurately identified and properly managed.