More coral may not equal more fish on the reef

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Coral use among fish and correlation coefficients (r) between fish metrics (abundance, biomass and species richness) and percentage coral cover. A, Coral-associated damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus) shelters within branching hard coral. B, Coral-eating butterflyfish (Chaetodon meyeri), which preys on coral polyps. C, Location of each correlation coefficient (r) (n = 723), mapped using Eckert IV projection. Panels A and B are reproduced with permission of François Liebert. credit: Nature ecology and evolution (2024). doi: 10.1038/s41559-024-02334-7

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Coral use among fish and correlation coefficients (r) between fish metrics (abundance, biomass and species richness) and percentage coral cover. A, Coral-associated damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus) shelters within branching hard coral. B, Coral-eating butterflyfish (Chaetodon meyeri), which preys on coral polyps. C, Location of each correlation coefficient (r) (n = 723), mapped using Eckert IV projection. Panels A and B are reproduced with permission of François Liebert. credit: Nature ecology and evolution (2024). doi: 10.1038/s41559-024-02334-7

A team of international and North Queensland researchers from James Cook University has discovered that the relationship between fish and coral may not be as strong as scientists have always assumed. The study is published in Nature ecology and evolution.

The lead author, a JCU Ph.D. Candidate Puvanthran Muruga examined more than 4,600 reports on the relationship between fish and coral reefs.

“There is no doubt that coral reefs serve as prime habitat for reef fish, providing shelter and food. So it is not surprising that for more than four decades there has been widespread consensus that reef fish are associated with reef-building corals.” He said.

“But upon closer examination of the literature, we found significant variation within and between fish and sites, and globally there were only weak associations between fish and coral reefs.”

Co-author Professor David Bellwood said the findings called into question assumptions about the strength and prevalence of associations between fish and coral.

“I would caution against assuming there is a direct and universal relationship between the two,” Professor Bellwood said.

Co-author Dr Alexandre Sequeira pointed to the apparent weakness in the connections between fish and coral reefs, coupled with the stability of some fish populations amid catastrophic coral loss, and stressed the need to acknowledge that coral cover alone may not affect fish as strongly as we thought.

Rather than a crucial interdependence, fish and coral may be two simultaneous entities within a more complex ecosystem, Muruga said.

“The results do not diminish the importance of corals in coral reefs but suggest that there is more to the relationship,” Muruga said.

“It underscores the need to look beyond the simple model that more coral equals more fish and recognize the complex processes that regulate and maintain coral reef communities,” Murga said.

more information:
Puvinthran Muruga et al., Meta-analysis reveals weak associations between reef fishes and corals, Nature ecology and evolution (2024). doi: 10.1038/s41559-024-02334-7

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