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Spatial discordance in fish, coral, and sponge assemblages across a Caribbean atoll reef gradient



Certain biodiversity patterns on coral reefs are generally consistent but we still lack fundamental insight into how assemblages vary across spatially heterogeneous reef systems. We compared fish, coral, and sponge assemblages across a symmetrical physiographical gradient (windward forereef, lagoon patch reef, leeward forereef) of the Glover's Reef atoll, Belize. Species richness of fishes and corals was highest in the deep habitat (15 m) on the windward forereef. Sponges were diverse and abundant on both deep windward and leeward forereefs but not on the exposed shallow (5 m) windward forereef. Fish and benthic assemblages were relatively distinct in each reef zone, with the lagoon patch reef communities consisting of a combination of leeward and windward species. Nevertheless, there were no clear patterns in community similarity matrices of fish and benthic assemblages, suggesting that overall coral and sponge assemblages had weak or no direct association with patterns in fish assemblages. A closer examination of fish trophic groups indicated that planktivores and predators were predictably associated with depth, whereas herbivores were associated with shallow protected reefs. None was specifically associated with spatial location along the atoll gradient. These patterns of diversity distribution are important for identifying spatial conservation priorities. A Marine Protected Area (MPA) at Glover's Reef encompasses substantial windward forereef and patch reef habitats. A much lesser extent of protection is afforded the leeward forereef that supports faunal assemblages that are unique and productive, if not as diverse as the windward forereef. Isolated coral atolls can serve as ideal systems to study spatial heterogeneity and biodiversity patterns, but more experimental studies are needed to reveal the mechanistic processes underlying these patterns.