Do ecological traits of low abundance and niche overlap promote hybridisation among coral-reef angelfishes?
School of Science / Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research
James Cook University
University of Western Australia
Christmas Island Dive Club
Hybridisation among species of coral-reef fish was previously considered to be rare. However, recent studies have revealed that hybridisation is prevalent in coral-reef fish, highlighting the need to understand the causes of this process. The angelfishes (family Pomacanthidae) have the greatest proportion (~ 30%) of hybridising species to date, with 26 species reported to hybridise. The aim of this study was to examine ecological factors (rarity of parent species and niche overlap) that promote hybridisation in terrestrial environments and to test these factors in the marine environment by examining hybridising angelfishes at Christmas Island (Indian Ocean). Three species of pygmy angelfish (Centropyge flavissima, C. eibli, and C. vrolikii) and their hybrids were investigated to address three objectives: (1) to determine temporal and spatial patterns in abundance and whether these patterns are linked to environmental factors; (2) to test for overlapping patterns in habitat use; and (3) to test for overlapping patterns in diet. Based on 14 yr of surveys, C. flavissima was abundant (4.53 individuals per 250 m2 ± 0.66), whereas C. eibli, C. vrolikii, and all hybrid combinations were consistently rare (average abundance < 0.3 per 250 m2 ± 0.03). Parent species and their hybrids were more abundant at 20 m depth compared to 5 m. All species and their hybrids had similar patterns of abundance around Christmas Island, with significantly high abundances evident at the most sheltered sites. Parent species and their hybrids also had similar diets that comprised a mix of green, red, and brown algae. The rarity of parent species, their niche overlap, and the haremic reproductive strategy likely promote hybridisation in angelfishes at Christmas Island. This study provides empirical evidence that hybridisation in reef fishes conforms to terrestrial-based hypothesis, and thus advances our understanding of the processes underlying hybridisation in coral-reef systems.