MEPS 339:49-59 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps339049

Quantifying herbivory across a coral reef depth gradient

Rebecca J. Fox, David R. Bellwood*

School of Marine and Tropical Biology, and Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia
*Corresponding author: Email:

ABSTRACT: Despite the widely accepted importance of herbivory as a determinant of reef benthic community structure, few studies have examined the relative contributions of individual species to ecosystem processes at the whole reef scale. This study quantifies the grazing impact of individual species of roving herbivorous fishes across an inner shelf fringing reef at Orpheus Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Estimates of roving herbivore impact based on dawn to dusk observations of feeding rates, measurement of bite sizes and relative abundance revealed that the Orpheus Island system was dominated by 3 species: Scarus rivulatus, Chlorurus microrhinos and Siganus doliatus. The estimated impact of all 3 species varied significantly across the reef depth gradient, with the rate of disturbance peaking at the crest and decreasing significantly down the slope and across the reef flat. The estimated species-specific disturbance levels suggested that during the course of a single month 104% of a square metre area of the reef crest is grazed by S. rivulatus while 40% is subject to grazing by C. microrhinos. A total of 26 cm3 of algal material is removed from the same area by S. doliatus. Overall, there was a 240-fold decrease in grazing activity across the reef flat from that at the crest. The pattern of grazing impact of the numerically dominant siganid and scarid fishes was negatively correlated with the distribution of macroalgae across the same reef gradient. The results of the current study provide support for the hypothesis that algal community structure is shaped by levels of herbivory.

KEY WORDS: Coral reef · Herbivore disturbance · Ecosystem impact · Macroalgae · Fishes · Resilience

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