MEPS 502:229-244 (2014)  -  DOI:

Growth potential and predation risk drive ontogenetic shifts among nursery habitats in a coral reef fish

Monique G. G. Grol1, Andrew L. Rypel2, Ivan Nagelkerken1,3,*

1Radboud University Nijmegen, Institute for Water and Wetland Research, Department of Animal Ecology and Ecophysiology, PO Box 9010, 6500 GL Nijmegen, The Netherlands
2Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Virginia Tech, 100 Cheatham Hall, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA
3Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, DX 650 418, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Various species of aquatic animals have complex life cycles and utilize different habitats during consecutive phases of their life cycles. For example, many marine fish species occupy different habitat types during juvenile and adult life stages. Juveniles of some species recruit to inshore nursery habitats such as mangroves and seagrass beds, whereas large adults tend to dominate coral reefs. The mechanisms underlying apparent cross-habitat distribution patterns by life stage remain uncertain for many species. Here, we investigated potential mechanisms that produce a 5-phase, and possibly even a 6-phase life cycle pattern in a common Caribbean coral reef fish species Haemulon flavolineatum (French grunt) across multiple coastal habitats. At each discrete life stage, individuals were faced with important and stage-specific ecological trade-offs that could significantly augment fitness. Pelagic larvae settled on rubble habitats near bay entrances where they reached an optimum between predation risk (survival) and food abundance (growth). Individuals subsequently shifted to seagrass beds, likely as a result of increased food resources, followed by a shift to mangroves as predation refugia. Before the uni-directional movement between bays and coral reefs, some fishes shifted from mangroves to boulder/notch habitats. Likely, this habitat serves as an intermediate stop before their final shift to the coral reef, where they reach maturity and reproduce. This study reveals ecological linkages and flows among habitat types that are of direct conservation importance to these ecosystems. Furthermore, the identification of mechanisms that give rise to cross-habitat distribution patterns of marine fishes in general might lead to enhanced conservation management solutions to declines in fisheries at larger scales.

KEY WORDS: Ontogenetic habitat shifts · Life cycle · Nursery · Food abundance · Condition · Maturation · Trade-offs

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Cite this article as: Grol MGG, Rypel AL, Nagelkerken I (2014) Growth potential and predation risk drive ontogenetic shifts among nursery habitats in a coral reef fish. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 502:229-244.

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