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Journal Article

Disturbance, Habitat Structure, and the Dynamics of a Coral-Reef Fish Community

Craig Syms and Geoffrey P. Jones
Ecology
Vol. 81, No. 10 (Oct., 2000), pp. 2714-2729
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Ecological Society of America
DOI: 10.2307/177336
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/177336
Page Count: 16
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Disturbance, Habitat Structure, and the Dynamics of a Coral-Reef Fish Community
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Abstract

Coral reef fishes occupy habitats that are patchy and subject to frequent natural disturbances. Although different types of disturbance are likely to generate different community responses, the relationship between different disturbance agents and their effects on reef fish communities has not been examined experimentally. We studied a set of natural patch reefs, dominated by a diverse array of soft and hard coral cover, at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef (northeastern Australia). The fish assemblages on the reefs were sampled over 4 mo to establish baseline values and then experimentally disturbed. Two types of disturbance were carried out in a factorial combination: pulsed mortality by removing all fish from reefs and pulsed habitat disturbance. Habitat disturbance was applied at two levels: Level 1 consisted only of damaging all live hard corals with a hammer; Level 2 consisted of damaging all live hard corals, and in addition, using a hammer to reduce the height and complexity of the reef matrix. We then monitored the experiment for a further 19 mo, including two recruitment seasons. Unmanipulated control assemblages persisted through time, and despite large changes in total abundance, species composition remained consistent relative to disturbed treatments. Assemblages disturbed by fish removal were resilient, with recolonization from both immigration and larval settlement effectively removing differences between removal treatments and controls 3 mo after manipulation. Habitat disturbance alone generated differences between experimental and control assemblages, which persisted for the duration of the experiment. The more extreme level of habitat disturbance generated more extreme changes in fish assemblages when no pulsed mortality occurred. Habitat disturbance in combination with pulsed mortality generated similar community responses as the habitat disturbance treatment alone. However, fish removal had the effect of eliminating the difference between fish assemblages on reefs subjected to different levels of habitat disturbance. Community response to habitat disturbance was driven by species-specific patterns of reduced abundance of species associated with live coral in combination with increased numbers of those associated with rubble. Declines in the abundance of coral associates on damaged reefs were abrupt, with no recovery observed for the duration of the experiment. In contrast, increases in the abundance of rubble associates were more ephemeral, in that initial high levels of recruitment and immigration were followed by a high rate of loss. Habitat disturbance also generated reefs that typically supported lower fish abundance, fewer species, and increased evenness relative to controls. Our results support a model of patch-reef fish assemblages organized by a combination of deterministic factors (such as habitat structure) and stochastic processes (such as recruitment). These disparate mechanisms operate in concert to generate reasonably consistent patterns of community structure. Habitat structure appears to mediate much of the apparent determinism and is likely to operate both as a reflection of species-specific habitat preferences and by modifying interactions among fish species. Consequently, disturbance plays a substantial role in structuring communities of coral-reef fishes by modifying both spatial and temporal heterogeneity.

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