The respective roles of regular echinoids and scarid fishes in the transformation of turf algae, the main food resource for reef herbivores, were investigated on French Polynesian coral reefs. The role of one species of parrotfish (Scarus sordidus) was compared with that of four species of echinoids. The degree and ways of degradation of the algal matter were determined by the organic matter percentage, the composition of the sugar fraction, and the concentration and composition of chlorophyll-type pigments as assayed by HPLC analysis. Chemical analyses were performed on anterior and posterior intestines for scarids, intestinal contents and faeces for echinoids, and on fresh algal turf as a control of initial food quality. A decrease in mean percentage of organic matter in gut content was observed from intestine (9.7%) to faeces (7%) in sea urchins, but not in parrotfishes. The total sugar fraction decreased from fresh algal turf (32% of total organic matter) to echinoid (28%) to scarid (18%) gut contents. The ratio of insoluble to soluble sugars (I/S ratios) was higher in echinoids (2.6) than in scarid gut contents (1.0). A decrease in the total pigment concentration was measured from fresh algal turf to echinoid and it was found to be even lower in scarid gut contents. Chromatograms showed that the composition of chlorophyll-type pigments in scarid intestines was very similar to fresh algal turf, with a dominance of native forms, mainly chlorophyll a and b. On the contrary, degraded pigment forms dominated in echinoids. The main degraded products were pheophorbides in sea urchins, and chlorophyllides in parrotfishes. These results provided evidence for differentiation in digestive processes occurring in the two types of grazers. Echinoids released higher degraded algal material than did scarids. Thus, these two types of grazers play different roles in the recycling of organic matter on coral reefs.
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