Losing half of tropical fish species as corals disappear

30 06 2021

When snorkelling in a reef, it’s natural to think of coral colonies as a colourful scenography where fish act in a play. But what would happen to the fish if the stage went suddenly empty, as in Peter Brook’s 1971 Midsummer Night’s Dream? Would the fish still be there acting their roles without a backdrop?

This question is not novel in coral-reef science. Ecologists have often compared reef fish diversity and biomass in selected localities before and after severe events of coral mortality. Even a temporary disappearance of corals might have substantial effects on fish communities, sometimes resulting in a local disappearance of more than half of local fish species.

Considering the multiple, complex ways fish interact with — and depend on — corals, this might appear as an obvious outcome. Still, such complexity of interactions makes it difficult to predict how the loss of corals might affect fish diversity in specific contexts, let alone at the global scale.

Focusing on species-specific fish-coral associations reveals an inconsistent picture with local-scale empirical observations. When looking at the fraction of local fish diversity that strictly depends on corals for food and other more generic habitat requirements (such as shelter and reproduction), the global picture suggests that most fish diversity in reef locality might persist in the absence of corals. 

The mismatch between this result and the empirical evidence of a stronger coral dependence suggests the existence of many hidden ecological paths connecting fish to corals, and that those paths might entrap many fish species for which the association to corals is not apparent.

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