MEPS 184:219-229 (1999)  -  doi:10.3354/meps184219

Feeding selectivity of the herbivorous fish Scartichthys viridis: effects on macroalgal community structure in a temperate rocky intertidal coastal zone

F. Patricio Ojeda*, Alejandro A. Muñoz**

Departamento de Ecología, Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas, P. Universidad Católica de Chile, Casilla 114-D, Santiago, Chile
**Present address: Departamento de Ciencias Ecológicas, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile

ABSTRACT: The ecological importance of fish herbivory was examined in a temperate rocky intertidal zone along the central Chilean coast. In this system, the blenny Scartichthys viridis is the most abundant and only herbivorous fish. We describe its diet, determine its field food selectivity (gut contents vs macroalgal field availability comparison), and report on its laboratory dietary preferences in a multiple-choice feeding experiment. Finally, we evaluate the relative effects of fish herbivory and grazing invertebrates on macroalgal abundance, distribution and diversity patterns in the field, using replicated exclusion cages to manipulate grazing intensity. S. viridis was found to be a selective grazer; its diet was dominated by 2 macroalgae: the green Ulva and the red Gelidium, representing 32.6 and 41.4% of its total gut content biomass, respectively. Ulva was consumed much above its field availability while Gelidium was selected only during fall-winter. In the laboratory, S. viridis selected the green macroalgae Ulva rigida and Codium dimorphum and avoided Gelidium chilense. We suggest that Gelidium may be included in its diet due to the limited availability of Ulva in the field. Experimental exclusion of this fish from rocky surfaces resulted in increased abundance of green foliose macroalgae (U. rigida and Enteromorpha linza), and, to a much lesser extent, of the red foliose macroalgae G. chilense, Porphyra columbina, and Mazzaella laminarioides, and of the brown macroalgae Colpomenia phaeodactyla and Petalonia fascia, as well as an extension of the distribution of P. columbina from the high intertidal to the mid intertidal zone, where it normally does not occur. Exclusion of grazing invertebrates resulted in a decrease in foliose macroalgal species richness, but had no effect on biomass. To our knowledge, this is the first experimental demonstration of the effect of an herbivorous fish on macroalgal community structure in a temperate rocky intertidal area. The selective feeding displayed by S. viridis, its high numerical abundance, and the results of the herbivore exclusion experiment suggest its importance in maintaining the low abundance of foliose macroalgae and the high relative cover of brown and red crustose macroalgae, characteristic of many low to mid rocky intertidal areas along the coast of central Chile.

KEY WORDS: Herbivorous fish · Temperate waters · Rocky intertidal · Macroalgae community structure · Feeding selectivity · Fish grazing

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