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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It’s not all about temperature for corals

31 05 2017


Three of the coral species studied by Muir (2): (a) Acropora pichoni: Pohnpei Island, Pacific Ocean — deep-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; (b) Acropora divaricate: Maldives, Indian ocean — mid-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; and (c) Acropora gemmifera: Orpheus Island, Australia — shallow-water species/IUCN ‘Least Concern’. The IUCN states that the 3 species are vulnerable to climate change (acidification, temperature extremes) and demographic booms of the invading predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci. Photos courtesy of Paul Muir.

Global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is modifying the distribution of many plants and animals. However, marine species are bound to face non-thermal barriers that might preclude their dispersal over wide stretches of the sea. Sunlight is one of those invisible obstacles for corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If we were offered a sumptuous job overseas, our professional success in an unknown place could be limited by factors like cultural or linguistic differences that have nothing to do with our work experience or expertise. If we translate this situation into biodiversity terms, one of the best-documented effects of global warming is the gradual dispersal of species tracking their native temperatures from the tropics to the poles (1). However, as dispersal progresses, many species encounter environmental barriers that are not physical (e.g., a high mountain or a wide river), and whose magnitude could be unrelated to ambient temperatures. Such invisible obstacles can prevent the establishment of pioneer populations away from the source.

Corals are ideal organisms to study this phenomenon because their life cycle is tightly geared to multiple environmental drivers (see ReefBase: Global Information System for Coral Reefs). Indeed, the growth of a coral’s exoskeleton relies on symbiotic zooxanthellae (see video and presentation), a kind of microscopic algae (Dinoflagellata) whose photosynthetic activity is regulated by sea temperature, photoperiod and dissolved calcium in the form of aragonite, among other factors.

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