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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps14160

Interrelationships between soft corals and reef-associated fishes on inshore-reefs of the Great Barrier Reef

Jaimee L. Moynihan*, April E. Hall, Michael J. Kingsford

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The composition of coral reef habitats strongly influences associated fish assemblages. As habitat formers, soft corals constitute a morphologically diverse component of coral reefs, however their importance as fish habitat is largely unquantified. Our study assessed relationships between soft and hard coral habitats with assemblages of reef-associated fishes on inshore reefs of the Whitsunday Islands, and focussed on pomacentrids, chaetodontids and pomacanthids. Study sites varied in cover of hard and soft coral and were assessed by the level of exposure to previous cyclone damage. The soft coral community was dominated by Sinularia spp. and constituted an average 11.4% of benthic cover compared to 16% hard coral cover. At fine spatial scales (250m2), significant positive relationships between soft coral cover and abundance occurred for two species of pomacentrids (Amblyglyphidodon curacao, and Amblyglyphidodon leucogaster) as well as total Chaetodontidae and Pomacanthidae. Further, it was clear that some taxa associated with specific soft corals. For example, A. curacao, Pomacentrus lepidogenys, and Chelmon rostratus were observed associating with branching digitate Sinularia, a more structurally complex soft coral morphology. The combination of high and medium cover of hard and soft corals supported distinct assemblages of fishes and the highest abundances of many species at the scale of sites (1000m2). Our results indicated that soft corals provide a valuable habitat, supporting diverse fish assemblages by contributing to habitat mosaics on coral reefs. These findings suggest that the ecological role of soft corals has been underestimated, and therefore holds direct implications for the management of coral reefs.