Jackson Estuarine Laboratory

Ecological structure of assemblages of coral reef fishes on isolated patch reefs


A 9-year study of the structure of assemblages of fish on 20 coral patch reefs, based on 20 non-manipulative censuses, revealed a total of 141 species from 34 families, although 40 species accounted for over 95% of sightings of fish. The average patch reef was 8.5 m2 in surface area, and supported 125 fish of 20 species at a census. All reefs showed at least a two-fold variation among censuses in total numbers of fish present, and 12 showed ten-fold variations. There was also substantial variation in the composition and relative abundances of species present on each patch reef, such that censuses of a single patch reef were on average about 50% different from each other in percent similarity of species composition (Czekanowski's index). Species differed substantially in the degree to which their numbers varied from census to census, and in the degree to which their dispersion among patch reefs was modified from census to census. We characterize the 40 most common species with respect to these attributes. The variations in assemblage structure cannot be attributed to responses of fish to a changing physical structure of patch reefs, nor to the comings and goings of numerous rare species. Our results support and extend earlier reports on this study, which have stressed the lack of persistant structure for assemblages on these patch reefs. While reef fishes clearly have microhabitat preferences which are expressed at settlement, the variations in microhabitat offered by the patch reefs are insufficient to segregate many species of fish by patch reef. Instead, at the scale of single patch reefs, and, to a degree, at the larger scale of the 20 patch reefs, most of the 141 species of fish are distributed without regard to differences in habitat structure among reefs, and patterns of distribution change over time. Implications for general understanding of assemblage dynamics for fish over more extensive patches of reef habitat are considered.

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