Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Asymmetries in body condition and order of arrival influence competitive ability and survival in a coral reef fish


Trade-offs between traits that influence an individual’s competitive ability are important in determining community assembly and coexistence of individuals sharing the same resources. Populations of coral reef fish are structurally complex, so it is important to understand how these populations are shaped as a result of an individual’s suite of traits and those of its competitors. We conducted a 2 × 2 factorial field experiment that manipulated body condition (high or low, manipulated through a feeding regime) and residency (resident or intruder, where the resident arrived at the habitat 3 h before the intruder) to evaluate effects on competitive ability and survival. Prior residency alleviated the disadvantage of a low body condition with respect to aggression, which was similar between low-condition residents and high-condition intruders. However, high-condition residents displayed a significantly greater level of aggression than intruders, regardless of whether intruders were from high- or low-condition treatments. For intruders to have a high probability of becoming dominant, they needed to have a large body condition advantage. Mortality trajectories suggested that body condition modified the effect of prior residency, and intruders were more likely to suffer mortality if they had a low body condition because residents pushed them away from shelter. Our results highlight that the negative effects of some traits may be compensated for by the positive effects of other traits, and that the specific ecological context an individual faces (such as the characteristics of its competitors) can have a major influence on successful establishment and persistence.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. Almany GR (2003) Priority effects in coral reef fish communities. Ecology 84:1920–1935

  2. Alvarez D, Nicieza AG (2002) Effects of induced variation in anuran larval development on postmetamorphic energy reserves and locomotion. Oecologia 131:186–195

  3. Arnott G, Elwood RW (2008) Information gathering and decision making about resource value in animal contests. Anim Behav 76:529–542

  4. Bachman GC (1993) The effect of body condition on the trade-off between vigilance and foraging in Belding’s ground squirrels. Anim Behav 46:233–244

  5. Beaugrand JP, Payette D, Goulet C (1996) Conflict outcome in male green swordtail fish dyads (Xiphophorus helleri): interaction of body size, prior dominance/subordination experience, and prior residency. Behav 133:303–319

  6. Berumen ML, Pratchett MS, McCormick MI (2005) Within-reef variation in the diet and condition of coral-feeding butterflyfish (Pisces: Chaetodontidae). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 287:217–227

  7. Blaustein L, Margalit J (1996) Priority effects in temporary pools: nature and outcome of mosquito larva-toad tadpole interactions depend on order of entrance. J Animal Ecol 65:77–84

  8. Booth DJ (2002) Larval supply, condition and persistence of the coral reef fish, Pomacentrus moluccensis. In: Proc 9th Int Coral Reefs Symp, Bali, Indonesia, 23–27 October 2000, 1:463–466

  9. Booth DJ, Alquezar R (2002) Food supplementation increases larval growth, condition and survival of Acanthochromis polyacanthus. J Fish Biol 60:1126–1133

  10. Booth DJ, Beretta GA (2004) Influence of recruit condition on food competition and predation risk in a coral reef fish. Oecologia 140:289–294

  11. Cleland EE, Esch E, McKinney J (2015) Priority effects vary with species identity and origin in an experiment varying the timing of seed arrival. Oikos 124:33–40. doi:10.1111/oik.01433

  12. Crespi EJ, Warne RW (2013) Environmental conditions experienced during the tadpole stage alter post-metamorphic glucocorticoid response to stress in an amphibian. Integr Comp Biol 53:989–1001

  13. Deaner RO, Goetz SM, Shattuck K, Schnotala T (2012) Body weight, not facial width-to-height ratio, predicts aggression in pro hockey players. J Res Personal 46:235–238

  14. Donelson JM, Munday PL, McCormick MI (2009) Parental effects on offspring life histories: when are they important? Biol Lett 5:262–265

  15. Dufour V, Galzin R (1993) Colonization patterns of reef fish larvae to the lagoon at Moorea Island, French Polynesia. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 102:143–152

  16. English S, Bateman AW, Mares R, Ozgul A, Clutton-Brock TH (2014) Maternal, social and abiotic environmental effects on growth vary across life stages in a cooperative mammal. J Anim Ecol 83:332–342

  17. Figueira WF, Booth DJ, Gregson MA (2008) Selective mortality of a coral reef damselfish: role of predator–competitor synergisms. Oecologia 156:215–226

  18. Fincke OM (1999) Organisation of predator assemblages in Neotropical tree holes: effects of abiotic factors and priority. Ecol Ent 24:13–23

  19. Fontes J, Santos RS, Afonso P, Caselle JE (2011) Larval growth, size, stage duration and recruitment success of a temperate reef fish. J Sea Res 65:1–7

  20. Forrester GE (1990) Factors influencing the juvenile demography of a coral reef fish. Ecology 71:1666–1681

  21. Geange SW, Stier AC (2009) Order of arrival affects competition in two reef fishes. Ecology 90:2868–2878

  22. Geange SW, Stier AC (2010) Priority effects and habitat complexity affect the strength of competition. Oecologia 163:111–118

  23. Green BS, McCormick MI (1999) Influence of larval feeding history on the body condition of Amphiprion melanopus. J Fish Biol 55:1273–1289

  24. Grorud-Colvert K, Sponaugle S (2006) Influence of condition on behavior and survival potential of a newly settled coral reef fish, the bluehead wrasse Thalassoma bifasciatum. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 327:279–288

  25. Hart AM, Russ GR (1996) Response of herbivorous fishes to crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci outbreaks. III. Age, growth, mortality and maturity indices of Acanthurus nigrofuscus. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 136:25–35

  26. Hill MRJ, Alisauskas RT, Davison Ankney C, Leafloor JO (2003) Influence of body size and condition on harvest and survival of juvenile Canada Geese. J Wildlife Management 67:530–541

  27. Hodge S, Arthur W, Mitchell P (1996) Effects of temporal priority on interspecific interactions and community development. Oikos 76:350–358

  28. Hoey A, McCormick MI (2004) Selective predation for low body condition at the larval–juvenile transition of a coral reef fish. Oecologia 139:23–29

  29. Hoey AS, McCormick MI (2006) Effects of subcutaneous fluorescent tags on the growth and survival of a newly settled coral reef fish, Pomacentrus amboinensis (Pomacentridae). In: Proc 10th Int Coral Reefs Symp, Okinawa, Japan, 28 June–2 July 2004, pp 420–425

  30. Holbrook SJ, Schmitt RJ (2002) Competition for shelter space causes density-dependent predation mortality in damselfishes. Ecology 83:2855–2868

  31. Holmes TH, McCormick MI (2009) Influence of prey body characteristics and performance on predator selection. Oecologia 159:401–413

  32. Jackson RR, Cooper KJ (1991) The influence of body size and prior residency on the outcome of male–male interactions of Marpissa marina, a New Zealand jumping spider (Araneae Salticidae). Ethol Ecol Evol 3:79–82

  33. Jarrett JN, Pechenik JA (1997) Temporal variation in cyprid quality and juvenile growth capacity for an intertidal barnacle. Ecology 78:1262–1265

  34. Jobling M, Meløy OH, dos Santos J, Christiansen B (1994) The compensatory growth response of the Atlantic cod: effects of nutritional history. Aquaculture Int 2:75–90

  35. Johnson DW (2008) Combined effects of condition and density on post-settlement survival and growth of a marine fish. Oecologia 155:43–52

  36. Jones GP (1991) Post-recruitment processes in the ecology of coral reef fish populations: a multifactorial perspective. In: Sale PF (ed) The ecology of fishes on coral reefs. Academic, San Diego, pp 294–328

  37. Kerrigan BA (1994) Post-settlement growth and body composition in relation to food availability in a juvenile tropical reef fish. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 111:7–15

  38. Kerrigan BA (1996) Temporal patterns in the size and condition of settlement in two tropical reef fishes (Pomacentridae: Pomacentrus amboinensis and P. nagasakiensis). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 135:27–41

  39. Lawler SP, Morin PJ (1993) Temporal overlap, competition, and priority effects in larval anurans. Ecology 74:174–182

  40. Leips J, Travis J (1994) Metamorphic responses to changing food levels in two species of hylid frogs. Ecology 75:1345–1356

  41. Lindstrӧm J (1999) Early development and fitness in birds and mammals. Trends Ecol Evol 14:343–348

  42. Maynard Smith J, Parker GA (1976) The logic of asymmetric contests. Anim Behav 24:159–175

  43. McCormick MI (2003) Consumption of coral propagules after mass spawning enhances larval quality of a damselfish through maternal effects. Oecologia 136:37–45

  44. McCormick MI (2009) Behaviourally mediated phenotypic selection in a disturbed coral reef environment. PLoS One 4:e7096

  45. McCormick MI (2012) Lethal effects of habitat degradation on fishes through changing competitive advantage. Proc R Soc Lond B 279:3899–3904

  46. McCormick MI, Gagliano M (2009) Carry-over effects—the importance of a good start. In: Proc 11th Int Coral Reef Symp, session no. 10, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, USA, 7–11 July 2008, pp 305–310

  47. McCormick MI, Meekan MG (2010) The importance of attitude: the influence of behaviour on survival at an ontogenetic boundary. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 407:173–185

  48. McCormick MI, Molony BW (1992) Effects of feeding history on the growth characteristics of a reef fish at settlement. Mar Biol 114:165–173

  49. McCormick MI, Molony BW (1993) Quality of the reef fish Upeneus tragula (Mullidae) at settlement: is size a good indicator of condition? Mar Ecol Prog Ser 98:45–54

  50. McCormick MI, Weaver C (2012) It pays to be pushy: intracohort interference competition between two reef fishes. PLoS One 7:e42590

  51. McCormick MI, Watson S, Munday PL (2013) Ocean acidification reverses competition for space as habitats degrade. Sci Rep 3:3280

  52. Meekan MG, Milicich MJ, Doherty PJ (1993) Larval production drives temporal patterns of larval supply and recruitment of a coral reef damselfish. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 93:217–225

  53. Meekan MG, Wilson SG, Halford A, Retzel A (2001) A comparison of catches of fishes and invertebrates by two light trap designs, in tropical NW Australia. Mar Biol 139:373–381

  54. Meekan MG, von Kuerthy C, McCormick MI, Radford B (2010) Behavioural mediation of the costs and benefits of fast growth in a marine fish. Anim Behav 79:803–809

  55. Mero C (2009) The consistency and ecological effects of behaviour in juvenile damselfishes. BSc Honours thesis. James Cook University, Townsville City

  56. Mesa MG, Poe TP, Gadomski DM, Petersen JH (1994) Are all prey created equal—a review and synthesis of differential predation on prey in substandard condition. J Fish Biol 45:81–96

  57. Neat FC, Taylor AC, Huntingford FA (1998) Proximate costs of fighting in male cichlid fish: the role of injuries and energy metabolism. Anim Behav 55:875–882

  58. Newman RA (1998) Ecological constraints on amphibian metamorphosis: interactions of temperature and larval density with responses to changing food level. Oecologia 115:9–16

  59. Orizaola G, Dahl E, Laurila A (2010) Compensating for delayed hatching across consecutive life-history stages in an amphibian. Oikos 119:980–987

  60. Peay KG, Belisle M, Fukami T (2012) Phylogenetic relatedness predicts priority effects in nectar yeast communities. Proc R Soc B 279:749–758

  61. Poulos DE, McCormick MI (2014) Who wins in the battle for space? The importance of priority, behavioural history and size. Anim Behav 90:305–314

  62. Relyea RA, Hoverman JT (2003) The impact of larval predators and competitors on the morphology and fitness of juvenile treefrogs. Oecologia 134:596–604

  63. Rowe L, Ludwig D, Schluter D (1994) Time, condition, and the seasonal decline of avian clutch size. Am Nat 143:698–722

  64. Sandell M, Smith HG (1991) Dominance, prior occupancy, and winter residency in the great tit (Parus major). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 29:147–152

  65. Scott DE, Fore MR (1995) The effect of food limitation on lipid levels, growth, and reproduction in the marbled salamander, Ambystoma opacum. Herpetologica 51:462–471

  66. Scriber JM, Slansky F (1981) The nutritional ecology of immature insects. Ann Rev Entomol 26:183–211

  67. Shima JS, Swearer SE (2010) The legacy of dispersal: larval experience shapes persistence later in the life of a reef fish. J Anim Ecol 79:1308–1314

  68. Shorrocks B, Bingley M (1994) Priority effects and species coexistence: experiments with fungal-breeding Drosophila. J Anim Ecol 63:799–806

  69. Tupper M, Boutilier RG (1995) Size and priority at settlement determine growth and competitive success of newly settled Atlantic cod. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 118:295–300

  70. Walker SPW, Ryen CA, McCormick MI (2007) Rapid larval growth predisposes sex change and sexual size dimorphism in a protogynous hermaphrodite, Parapercis snyderi Jordan & Starks 1905. J Fish Biol 71:1347–1357

  71. Webster MS (2004) Density dependence via intercohort competition in a coral-reef fish. Ecology 85:986–994

  72. Webster MM, Ward AJW, Hart PJB (2009) Individual boldness affects interspecific interactions in sticklebacks. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 63:511–520

  73. Werner EE, Gilliam JF (1984) The ontogenetic niche and species interactions in size-structured populations. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 15:393–425

  74. Wilbur HM (1980) Complex life cycles. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 11:67–93

Download references


We would like to thank L. Pedini and S. Gardner for assistance with data collection, as well as staff at the Lizard Island Research Station (Australian Museum) for logistical support. Comments from two anonymous reviewers greatly improved the manuscript. This study was financially funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant to M.I.M., and ethically approved under James Cook University animal ethics application A1720.

Author contribution statement

DEP and MIM conceived and designed the experiments. DEP performed the experiments. DEP analysed the data. DEP and MIM wrote the manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to Davina E. Poulos.

Additional information

Communicated by Steve Swearer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Poulos, D.E., McCormick, M.I. Asymmetries in body condition and order of arrival influence competitive ability and survival in a coral reef fish. Oecologia 179, 719–728 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-015-3401-8

Download citation


  • Aggression
  • Body condition
  • Competition
  • Pomacentrus amboinensis
  • Priority effect