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Diversity and functional importance of coral-feeding fishes on tropical coral reefs

Authors

  • Andrew J. Cole,

    1. ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
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  • Morgan S. Pratchett,

    1. ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
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  • Geoffrey P. Jones

    1. ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
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Andrew Cole, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.
Tel.: +61 7 4781 5991
Fax: +61 7 47251570
E-mail: andrew.cole3@jcu.edu.au

Abstract

Fishes that feed from live corals (corallivores) are a conspicuous component of healthy coral reef environments. However, knowledge of the occurrence and ecological significance of this feeding mode is fragmentary. Historically, very few fish were considered capable of feeding from live coral, and those few that did were considered ecologically insignificant. More recently, the role of corallivores has been re-evaluated; published records document 128 corallivorous fish species from 11 different families, with 69 of these belonging to the family Chaetodontidae. Other families, including the Labridae, Tetraodontidae, Balistidae, Monacanthidae, Pomacentridae and Scaridae, all have between seven and ten coral-feeding species. One-third of coral-feeding fishes feed almost exclusively on corals, with more than 80% of their diet based on coral. Corallivorous fish show distinct prey preferences and consume only a small subset of available corals, usually the genera Acropora, Pocillopora and Porites. This selective predation by corallivores can limit abundance and distribution of preferred corals. Chronic predation by corallivores may also exacerbate effects of coral disturbance (e.g. climate-induced coral bleaching), impeding reef recovery and causing further coral loss. Conversely, the cover of preferred corals can be a primary determinant of corallivore abundance and physiological condition. Owing to this close association, obligate corallivores invariably decline in response to loss of coral cover. Increased knowledge of the number of corallivores and their diets suggest that this feeding mode is more important to coral reef food webs than traditionally thought.

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