Herbivores strongly influence algal recruitment in both coral- and algal- dominated coral reef habitats
Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science
School of Natural Sciences / Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research
Coral reefs can exist as coral- and macroalgae-dominated habitats often separated by only a few hundred metres. While herbivorous fish are known to depress the abundance of algae and help maintain the function of coral-dominated habitats, less is known about their influence in algae-dominated habitats. Here, we quantified herbivorous fish and benthic algal communities over a 6 mo period in coral-dominated (back-reef) and algal-dominated (lagoon) habitats in a relatively undisturbed fringing coral reef (Ningaloo, Western Australia). Simultaneously, we tested the effects of herbivorous fish on algal recruitment in both habitats using recruitment tiles and fish exclusion cages. The composition of established algal communities differed consistently between habitats, with the back-reef hosting a more diverse community than the Sargassum-dominated lagoon. However, total algal biomass and cover only differed between habitats in autumn, coinciding with maximum Sargassum biomass. The back-reef hosted high coral cover and a diverse herbivorous fish community, with herbivore biomass an order of magnitude greater than the lagoon. Despite these differences in herbivore composition, exclusion of large herbivores had a similar positive effect to foliose macroalgae recruitment on experimental tiles in both back-reef and lagoon habitats. Additionally, territorial damselfish found in the back-reef increased turf algae cover and decreased crustose coralline algae cover on recruitment tiles. Collectively, our results show that disparate herbivorous fish communities in coral- and algae-dominated habitats are similarly able to limit the recruitment of foliose macroalgae, but suggest that when herbivorous fish biomass and diversity are relatively low, macroalgal communities are able to escape herbivore control through increased growth.