The findings bring to light a previously unrecognized role for the batfish species, which had not been considered a significant player in reef recovery after overfishing. In doing so, the study provides insight into the poorly understood—and potentially complex—forces that influence the state of coral reefs under ecological stress.
The work appears in the December 19th issue of the journal Current Biology, published by Cell Press, and is reported by David Bellwood, Terry Hughes, and Andrew Hoey of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
The world’s tropical coral reefs are under threat from overfishing, habitat modification, and global warming. One of the most visible signs of a decline in the condition of coral reefs is the widely documented shift from a healthy state in which corals dominate to a weedy state in which algae (so-called “macro algae") dominate. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that this phase shift can be triggered by a loss of algae-consuming herbivores, especially parrotfishes and surgeonfishes. However, the critical question has remained: How can this coral-algal phase shift be reversed"
By simulating overfishing in large experimental plots on the Great Barrier Reef, the researchers in the new study intentionally triggered a phase shift to algal dominance on a healthy reef. They then filmed the reef’s recovery with remote underwater digital videos cameras. Remarkably, only two of the 27 herbivorous fish species present on the reefs had any significant impact on its recovery from algal overgrowth. What was most surprising was that the dominant browser was a rare batfish, a species previously thought to be an invertebrate feeder. Meanwhile, parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, which are the routine consumers of seaweed on coral reefs, were unable to reverse runaway algal blooms.
The study’s findings highlight the unexpected importance of a single rare species in the recovery of coral reefs, and potentially contribute to the identification and future protection of species groups that underlie the resilience and regenerative capacity of coral reef ecosystems.
Erin Doonan | EurekAlert!
Successful calculation of human and natural influence on cloud formation
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The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
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