Indirect effects of a key ecosystem engineer alter survival and growth of foundation coral species

  • White J
  • O'Donnell J
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Stegastes nigricans, a "farmerfish" that cultivates algal turf and defends territories from grazers and other intruders, can affect coral indirectly due to increased competition with farmed algal turf and/or reduced predation resulting from territorial aggression directed at corallivores. To investigate the indirect effects of this key ecosystem engineer on coral mortality and growth, we transplanted caged and exposed fragments of four coral species to patch reefs in French Polynesia on which we manipulated the presence of S. nigricans and turf, and to reefs naturally devoid of S. nigricans. Reef access was two to four times higher for herbivorous fishes, and two times higher for corallivorous fishes, when S. nigricans was removed, indicating that reef access is reduced for two important guilds of fishes when S. nigricans is present. Stegastes' territoriality indirectly benefited delicate acroporids (Montipora floweri and Acropora striata), yielding a twofold to fivefold reduction in skeletal loss due to lower predation frequencies in the presence of S. nigricans. Three corals, A. striata, M. floweri, and especially Porites australiensis, suffered mortality due to overgrowth significantly more frequently in the presence of farmed turf, but Pocillopora verrucosa did not. Algal abundance predicted the frequency of overgrowth for only A. striata and P. australiensis. M. floweri were more likely to be overgrown when exposed (uncaged) in the presence of S. nigricans, suggesting an interaction modification, in this case that initial predation increased susceptibility to competition with turf. In this community, the presence of S. nigricans may increase algal overgrowth of massive Porites by facilitating its turf competitors and simultaneously reduce predation of branching corals through territorial exclusion of corallivores. These indirect interactions may underlie previously documented community transitions from disturbance-resistant massive coral to recovering branching corals within S. nigricans territories.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Acropora
  • Coral-algal competition
  • Corallivory
  • Farmerfish
  • Interaction modification
  • Keystone species
  • Montipora
  • Pocillopora
  • Porites
  • Stegastes nigricans
  • Territorial behavior
  • Turf

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