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Keywords:

  • Australia;
  • coral reef;
  • fish;
  • herbivory;
  • landscape ecology;
  • mangroves;
  • marine reserve;
  • trophic cascade

Summary

  1. In light of the global extent and cascading effect of our impact on the environment, we design and manage reserves to restore biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems. Mobile organisms link important processes across ecosystems, however, their roles in providing these services are often overlooked and we need to know how they influence ecosystem functions in reserves. Herbivorous fish play a key role in coral reef seascapes. By removing algae, they promote coral growth and recruitment, and help to increase resilience.
  2. We examined how connectivity with mangroves affected herbivore populations and benthic succession on reefs in eastern Australia. We surveyed fish assemblages, examined reef composition and characterised benthic recruitment on reefs at multiple levels of connectivity with mangroves, in a no-take reserve and areas open to fishing.
  3. Our results show that connectivity enhanced herbivore biomass and richness in reserves, and that these connectivity and reserve effects interacted to promote herbivory on protected reefs near mangroves.
  4. Connectivity and reserve protection combined to double the biomass of roving herbivorous fish on protected reefs near mangroves. The increase in grazing intensity drove a trophic cascade that reduced algal cover and enhanced coral recruitment and reef resilience.
  5. Synthesis and applications. Our findings demonstrate that ecosystem resilience can be improved by managing both reefs and adjacent habitats together as functional seascape units. By understanding how landscapes influence resilience, and explicitly incorporating these effects into conservation decision-making, we may have greater success with environmental restoration and preservation actions.