Cleaner fish drives local fish diversity on coral reefs

  • Grutter A
  • Murphy J
  • Choat J
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Coral reefs are one of the most diverse habitats in the world [1], yet our understanding of the processes affecting their biodiversity is limited [1-3]. At the local scale, cleaner fish are thought to have a disproportionate effect, in relation to their abundance and size, on the activity of many other fish species, but confirmation of this species' effect on local fish diversity has proved elusive. The cleaner fish Labroides dimidiatus has major effects on fish activity patterns [4] and may indirectly affect fish demography through the removal of large numbers of parasites [5, 6]. Here we show that small reefs where L. dimidiatus had been experimentally excluded for 18 months had half the species diversity of fish and one-fourth the abundance of individuals. Only fish that move among reefs, however, were affected. These fish include large species that themselves can affect other reef organisms [2, 7]. In contrast, the distribution of resident fish was not affected by cleaner fish. Thus, many fish appear to choose reefs based on the presence of cleaner fish. Our findings indicate that a single small [8] and not very abundant [9] fish has a strong influence on the movement patterns, habitat choice, activity, and local diversity and abundance of a wide variety of reef fish species.

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  • Alexandra S. Grutter

  • Jan Maree Murphy

  • J. Howard Choat

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