MEPS 587:201-215 (2018)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12458

Habitat selection and aggression as determinants of fine-scale partitioning of coral reef zones in a guild of territorial damselfishes

J. G. Eurich*, M. I. McCormick, G. P. Jones

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and Marine Biology and Aquaculture, College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: A major goal of ecology is to explain the mechanisms that drive species distributions and ecological partitioning along gradients in the natural environment. The distributions of ecologically similar animals may depend on the degree of habitat specialization and behavioural interactions within and among species. The extent of ecological partitioning in guilds of coral reef fishes has been a matter of debate, but the roles of habitat selectivity and agonistic interactions have received little attention. Here these effects were examined by investigating fine-scale species distributions, microhabitat use, and aggression in a guild of 7 territorial damselfish species in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. We documented patterns of habitat partitioning across the 3 reef zones—reef flat, reef crest, and reef slope—with distinct patterns of distribution within these zones at extremely fine scales (1-2 m). Distinct differences between neighbouring species in the substrata selected were also observed. We hypothesized that fine-scale differences in distribution and microhabitat use could be maintained by aggressive interactions. To test this, we employed a ‘bottle’ experiment, where stimulus fish were introduced into a resident’s territory, and aggression was recorded. Aggression elicited by neighbouring species was significantly higher for all species, compared with non-adjacent species. Levels of aggression differed among species, with the most aggressive species dominating the reef crest where the most distributional overlap occurred. This study revealed a fine level of spatial partitioning among reef zones and microhabitats in this guild of damselfish, which is likely to be maintained by agonistic interactions among neighbouring species. We demonstrate that when exploring coexistence in reef fish communities, the more traditional niche mechanisms operate alongside competitive dynamics, and within highly diverse systems these ecological processes are magnified.


KEY WORDS: Coral reef fish · Distribution · Ecological versatility · Interspecific competition · Pomacentridae · Papua New Guinea · Resource use · Depth gradient


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Cite this article as: Eurich JG, McCormick MI, Jones GP (2018) Habitat selection and aggression as determinants of fine-scale partitioning of coral reef zones in a guild of territorial damselfishes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 587:201-215. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12458

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