Habitat degradation is threatening reef replenishment by making fish fearless

Authors


Summary

  1. Habitat degradation is one of the ‘Big Five’ drivers of biodiversity loss. However, the mechanisms responsible for this progressive loss of biodiversity are poorly understood. In marine ecosystems, corals play the role of ecosystem engineers, providing essential habitat for hundreds of thousands of species and hence their health is crucial to the stability of the whole ecosystem.
  2. Climate change is causing coral bleaching and degradation, and while this has been known for a while, little do we know about the cascading consequences of these events on the complex interrelationships between predators and their prey. The goal of our study was to investigate, under completely natural conditions, the effect of coral degradation on predator–prey interactions.
  3. Settlement stage ambon damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis), a common tropical fish, were released on patches of healthy or dead corals, and their behaviours in situ were measured, along with their response to injured conspecific cues, a common risk indicator. This study also explored the effect of habitat degradation on natural levels of mortality at a critical life-history transition.
  4. We found that juveniles in dead corals displayed risk-prone behaviours, sitting further away and higher up on the reef patch, and failed to respond to predation cues, compared to those on live coral patches. In addition, in situ survival experiments over 48 h indicated that juveniles on dead coral habitats had a 75% increase in predation-related mortality, compared to fish released on live, healthy coral habitats.
  5. Our results provide the first of many potential mechanisms through which habitat degradation can impact the relationship between prey and predators in the coral reef ecosystem. As the proportion of dead coral increases, the recruitment and replenishment of coral reef fishes will be threatened, and so will the level of diversity in these biodiversity hot spots.

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