• Chaetodontidae;
  • coral-feeding;
  • corallivore;
  • functional importance;
  • partial predation;
  • productivity;
  • trophic link


1. Interactions between primary producers and consumers (i.e. grazers) are of fundamental importance to the successful functioning of ecological communities. Plant–herbivore interactions have been extensively studied, and herbivory has been accepted as an important process contributing to the structure of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In contrast, the functional importance of the ecologically equivalent interaction between scleractinian reef corals and polyp-feeding fishes is largely untested, but has generally been dismissed as unimportant.

2. This study quantified the amount of tabular acroporid coral tissue biomass consumed at the population level by corallivorous butterflyfishes and determined the proportion of both the standing biomass and productivity that is consumed annually at three exposed reef crest sites at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef and Australia.

3. Total daily coral consumption ranged from 18·6 (±1·6) to 27·4 (±1·5) g 200 m−2 day−1 with 61–68% of this consumption directed towards tabular acroporid corals. This selective feeding resulted in an annual consumption of between 8·9–13·5% of the total available tissue biomass and between 52–79% of the annual productivity of these tabular acroporid corals.

4. The proportion of standing coral tissue biomass removed by corallivorous butterflyfishes is similar to that removed from terrestrial plants by herbivores. However, the proportion of primary productivity consumed is considerably greater on coral reefs for both corallivorous and herbivorous fishes compared with terrestrial systems.

5. In terrestrial systems, even relatively low levels of defoliation can have significant effects on plant growth rates, seed production and overall fitness. Considering the high proportion of productivity that is consumed by polyp-feeding fishes, it would seem incongruous that these grazing fishes do not have similar effects on coral community structure and population dynamics. Our findings highlight the need to revisit previously held assumptions regarding the functional importance of corallivorous fishes to coral reef ecosystems.