Natural hybridization is widespread among coral reef fishes. However, the ecological promoters and evolutionary consequences of reef fish hybridization have not been thoroughly evaluated. Butterflyfishes form a high number of hybrids and represent an appropriate group to investigate hybridization in reef fishes. This study provides a rare test of terrestrially derived hybridization theory in the marine environment by examining hybridization between Chaetodon trifasciatus and C. lunulatus at Christmas Island. Overlapping spatial and dietary ecologies enable heterospecific encounters. Nonassortative mating and local rarity of both parent species appear to permit heterospecific breeding pair formation. Microsatellite loci and mtDNA confirmed the status of hybrids, which displayed the lowest genetic diversity in the sample and used a reduced suite of resources, suggesting decreased adaptability. Maternal contribution to hybridization was unidirectional, and no introgression was detected, suggesting limited, localized evolutionary consequences of hybridization.
Comparisons to other reef fish hybridization studies revealed that different evolutionary consequences emerge, despite being promoted by similar factors, possibly due to the magnitude of genetic distance between hybridizing species. This study highlights the need for further enquiry aimed at evaluating the importance and long-term consequences of reef fish hybridization.