MEPS prepress abstract  -  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

*Email: jacob.eurich@my.jcu.edu.au

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 seven territorial damselfish species in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. We documented patterns of habitat partitioning across the three reef zones – the 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 were 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 when exploring coexistence in reef fish communities the more traditional niche mechanisms operates alongside competitive dynamics and within highly diverse systems these ecological processes are magnified.