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Habitat loss, resource specialization, and extinction on coral reefs


  • Philip L. Munday

    1. School of Marine Biology and Aquaculture, and Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia
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Philip L. Munday, tel. +617 4781 5341, e-mail:


Coral reefs worldwide are being degraded because of global warming (coral bleaching) and coastal development (sedimentation and eutrophication). Predicting the risk of species extinctions from this type of habitat degradation is one of the most challenging and urgent tasks facing ecologists. Habitat specialists are thought to be more prone to extinction than generalists; however, specialists may be more susceptible to extinction because (1) they are specialists per se, (2) they are less abundant than generalists, or (3) both. Here, I show that declines in coral abundance lead to corresponding declines in the abundance of coral-dwelling fishes, but with proportionally greater losses to specialists than generalists. In addition, specialists have smaller initial population sizes than generalists. Consequently, specialists face a dual risk of extinction because their already small populations decline more rapidly than those of generalists. Corresponding with this increased extinction risk, I describe the local extinction of one specialist species and the near-global extinction of another species. I conclude that habitat specialists will be the first species lost from coral reefs because their small populations suffer the most from human-induced disturbances.