- 1The impact of environmental disturbance and habitat loss on associated species is expected to be dependent on a species’ level of specialization. We examined habitat use and specialization of coral reef fish from the diverse and ecologically important family Pomacentridae, and determined which species are susceptible to declines in coral cover due to disturbance induced by crown-of-thorns seastar (COTS, Acanthaster planci L.).
- 2A high proportion of pomacentrid species live in association with live coral as adults (40%) or juveniles (53%). Adults of many species had strong affiliations with branching corals, while juveniles favoured plating growth forms, reflecting the sizes of refuge provided by coral types.
- 3Juveniles of species that associated with coral had narrower niche breadths than adult conspecifics, due to associations with specific coral types. The especially high coral association and narrower niche breadth of juveniles suggest that the presence of live coral is crucial for many species during early life history, and that disturbance-induced coral loss may have serious flow-on effects on adult abundance.
- 4Microhabitat availability was a poor predictor of fish species abundance. Significant correlations between coverage of coral types and abundance of five adults and two juvenile species were detected; however, these relationships explained <35% and <10% of the variation in abundance of adult and juvenile species, respectively.
- 5Niche breadth explained 74% of the variation in species’ mean response to coral decline and it is clear that disturbance has a greater impact on resource specialists, suggesting that increasing frequency and intensity of coral loss will cause reef fish communities to become dominated by habitat generalists at the expense of coral-dwelling specialists.