Influence of dietary specialization and resource availability on geographical variation in abundance of butterflyfish


  • Funded in part by a Queensland Government Smart State Ph.D. Scholarship and grants from the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia, Project Aware, and the Australian Coral Reef Society to R. J. L.

Rebecca J. Lawton, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville QLD, 4811, Australia. Tel: +61 7 47816058; Fax: +61 7 47816722; E-mail:


Empirical evidence indicates that both niche breadth and resource availability are key drivers of a species’ local abundance patterns. However, most studies have considered the influence of either niche breath or resource availability in isolation, while it is the interactive effects that are likely to influence local abundance. We examined geographic variation in the feeding ecology and distribution of coral-feeding butterflyfish to determine the influence of dietary specialization and dietary resource availability on their local abundance. Dietary composition and abundance of five butterflyfish and coral dietary resource availability were determined at 45 sites across five locations (Lizard Island and Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef; Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea; Noumea, New Caledonia; and Moorea, French Polynesia). Multiple regression models using variables representative of total dietary resource availability, availability of specific dietary resources, and interspecific competition were used to determine the best predictors of local abundance across all sites and locations for each species. Factors influencing local abundance varied between butterflyfish with specialized and generalized diets. Dietary resource availability had the strongest influence on the abundance of Chaetodon trifascialis—the most specialized species. Local abundance of C. trifascialis was best predicted by availability of the Acropora corals that it preferentially feeds on. In contrast, abundance of generalist butterflyfish was poorly described by variation in availability of specific resources. Rather, indices of total dietary resource availability best predicted their abundance. Overall, multiple regression models only explained a small proportion of the variation in local abundance for all five species. Despite their relatively specialized diets, dietary resource availability has limited influence on the local abundance of butterflyfish. Only the most specialized species appear to be consistently limited by prey availability. Local and total abundance of species are influenced by a wide range of different factors and there is definite need to conduct independent species assessments.