- Detailed knowledge of a species’ functional niche is crucial for the study of ecological communities and processes. The extent of niche overlap, functional redundancy and functional complementarity is of particular importance if we are to understand ecosystem processes and their vulnerability to disturbances.
- Coral reefs are among the most threatened marine systems, and anthropogenic activity is changing the functional composition of reefs. The loss of herbivorous fishes is particularly concerning as the removal of algae is crucial for the growth and survival of corals. Yet, the foraging patterns of the various herbivorous fish species are poorly understood.
- Using a multidimensional framework, we present novel individual-based analyses of species’ realized functional niches, which we apply to a herbivorous coral reef fish community. In calculating niche volumes for 21 species, based on their microhabitat utilization patterns during foraging, and computing functional overlaps, we provide a measurement of functional redundancy or complementarity. Complementarity is the inverse of redundancy and is defined as less than 50% overlap in niche volumes.
- The analyses reveal extensive complementarity with an average functional overlap of just 15·2%. Furthermore, the analyses divide herbivorous reef fishes into two broad groups. The first group (predominantly surgeonfishes and parrotfishes) comprises species feeding on exposed surfaces and predominantly open reef matrix or sandy substrata, resulting in small niche volumes and extensive complementarity. In contrast, the second group consists of species (predominantly rabbitfishes) that feed over a wider range of microhabitats, penetrating the reef matrix to exploit concealed surfaces of various substratum types. These species show high variation among individuals, leading to large niche volumes, more overlap and less complementarity.
- These results may have crucial consequences for our understanding of herbivorous processes on coral reefs, as algal removal appears to depend strongly on species-specific microhabitat utilization patterns of herbivores. Furthermore, the results emphasize the capacity of the individual-based analyses to reveal variation in the functional niches of species, even in high-diversity systems such as coral reefs, demonstrating its potential applicability to other high-diversity ecosystems.
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