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Taxonomic composition of mobile epifaunal invertebrate assemblages on diverse benthic microhabitats from temperate to tropical reefs

K. M. Fraser*, R. D. Stuart-Smith, S. D. Ling, F. J. Heather, G. J. Edgar

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Anthropogenic drivers are flattening reef structure from three-dimensional habitats composed of macroalgae and live branching corals towards low-profile turfing algae. Our current understanding of the consequences of widespread reef degradation currently fail to consider the responses of small mobile invertebrates (‘epifauna’) to patterns of change amongst reef structural elements (‘microhabitats’). Here, the taxonomic composition of 152 epifaunal assemblages was compared among 21 structurally diverse benthic microhabitats across an Australian temperate to tropical climatic gradient, spanning 28.6 degrees in latitude from Tasmania to the northern Great Barrier Reef. Epifauna varied consistently with different microhabitat types, and to a much lesser extent with latitude. Macroalgae, live branching coral, and turfing algae represented three extremes for epifaunal community structure – most microhabitats possessing epifaunal assemblages intermediate between these endpoints. Amongst structural characteristics, epifauna related primarily to the degree of branching and hardness of microhabitats. Mobile invertebrate communities are likely to transform in predictable ways with collapse of large erect macroalgae and live coral towards low-lying turf-associated communities.