Ecological structure of tropical fish assemblages in wet-zone streams of Sri Lanka



The introduction of four fish species into a depauperate stream system in central Sri Lanka provided a ‘natural experiment’ that enabled us to determine the ecological structure of wet-zone stream fish assemblages. All the species indigenous to this ‘introduction’ stream system also co-occur naturally with the introduced species in nearby streams. Analyses of habitat use and dietary requirements revealed that most species in the assemblages were segregated on the basis of macrohabitat, microhabitat and food, regardless of origin of the fishes. Macrohabitat and microhabitat utilizations by species were similar in each stream of the ‘introduction’ system despite differences in stream conditions. Thus species distributions, relative to each other in ecological space, were consistent among streams, and with the combined data. High overlaps along the resource axes of velocity, depth, substratum and food were few. A major proportion of the high overlaps was due to associations with introduced species; especially Barbus nigrofasciatus and Barbus cumingii. The other two introduced species, Barbus titteya and Rasbora vaterifloris, were more specialized, and interacted relatively less with indigenous species. The indigenous species, however, exhibited pronounced complementarity along three resource axes representing depth, velocity and food. Rasbora vaterifloris and B. nigrofasciatus grew to larger sizes in one stream which had fewer indigenous species, suggesting competitive release. In this stream, the most common indigenous species was a dietary specialist that fed on diatoms, and B. nigrofasciatus, which fed heavily on diatoms in other streams, switched to feeding more on macrophytes. Overall, the data suggest that these assemblages are predictable, co-evolved systems with competition serving as an important structuring force that reinforces species segregation.