Habitat zonation on coral reefs: Structural complexity, nutritional resources and herbivorous fish distributions
Distinct zonation of community assemblages among habitats is a ubiquitous feature of coral reefs. The distribution of roving herbivorous fishes (parrotfishes, surgeonfishes and rabbitfishes) is a particularly clear example, with the abundance of these fishes generally peaking in shallow-water, high-energy habitats, regardless of the biogeographic realm. Yet, our understanding of the factors which structure this habitat partitioning, especially with regards to different facets of structural complexity and nutritional resource availability, is limited. To address this issue, we used three-dimensional photogrammetry and structure-from-motion technologies to describe five components of structural complexity (rugosity, coral cover, verticality, refuge density and field-of-view) and nutritional resource availability (grazing surface area) among habitats and considered how these factors are related to herbivorous fish distributions. All complexity metrics (including coral cover) were highest on the slope and crest. Nutritional resource availability differed from this general pattern and peaked on the outer-flat. Unexpectedly, when compared to the distribution of herbivorous fishes, none of the complexity metrics had a marked influence in the models. However, grazing surface area was a strong predictor of both the abundance and biomass of herbivorous fishes. The strong relationship between grazing surface area and herbivorous fish distributions indicates that nutritional resource availability may be one of the primary factors driving the distribution of roving herbivorous fishes. The lack of a relationship between complexity and herbivorous fishes, and a strong affinity of herbivorous fishes for low-complexity, algal turf-dominated outer-flat habitats, offers some cautious optimism that herbivory may be sustained on future, low-complexity, algal turf-dominated reef configurations.