Retention of habitat complexity minimizes disassembly of reef fish communities following disturbance: A large-scale natural experiment

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Abstract

High biodiversity ecosystems are commonly associated with complex habitats. Coral reefs are highly diverse ecosystems, but are under increasing pressure from numerous stressors, many of which reduce live coral cover and habitat complexity with concomitant effects on other organisms such as reef fishes. While previous studies have highlighted the importance of habitat complexity in structuring reef fish communities, they employed gradient or meta-analyses which lacked a controlled experimental design over broad spatial scales to explicitly separate the influence of live coral cover from overall habitat complexity. Here a natural experiment using a long term (20 year), spatially extensive (∼ 115,000 kms<sup>2</sup>) dataset from the Great Barrier Reef revealed the fundamental importance of overall habitat complexity for reef fishes. Reductions of both live coral cover and habitat complexity had substantial impacts on fish communities compared to relatively minor impacts after major reductions in coral cover but not habitat complexity. Where habitat complexity was substantially reduced, species abundances broadly declined and a far greater number of fish species were locally extirpated, including economically important fishes. This resulted in decreased species richness and a loss of diversity within functional groups. Our results suggest that the retention of habitat complexity following disturbances can ameliorate the impacts of coral declines on reef fishes, so preserving their capacity to perform important functional roles essential to reef resilience. These results add to a growing body of evidence about the importance of habitat complexity for reef fishes, and represent the first large-scale examination of this question on the Great Barrier Reef. © 2014 Emslie et al.

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Emslie, M. J., Cheal, A. J., & Johns, K. A. (2014). Retention of habitat complexity minimizes disassembly of reef fish communities following disturbance: A large-scale natural experiment. PLoS ONE, 9(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105384

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