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Functional traits reveal the presence and nature of multiple processes in the assembly of marine fish communities

  • Benjamin M. FordEmail author
  • J. Dale Roberts
Community ecology – original research


Functional traits can be used to identify the importance of various community assembly mechanisms such as ecological drift, environmental filtering, and limiting similarity. These processes act in concert, not isolation, and different processes may act upon separate traits, potentially concealing the ecological signal of one or more of the mechanisms. Nine functional attributes of marine fish were used to identify changes in the importance of various mechanisms in the assembly of marine fish communities over a latitudinal gradient along the Western Australian coast. Complementary null modelling approaches were used to test the relative importance of assembly processes (ecological drift, environmental filtering, and limiting similarity) in structuring fish communities. Ecological drift was found to be a major driver of the structure of fish communities, and dispersal limitation was strongest in the tropical region, with homogenising dispersal strongest in the temperate region. Dispersion of functional traits identified environmental filtering acting on most traits incorporated in this study, in addition to limiting similarity acting on traits associated with acquisition of trophic resources. The coexistence of Western Australian marine fishes thus results from concurrent ecological drift, environmental filtering, and limiting similarity structuring the communities. The observed ecological drift may be the result of priority effects and/or context-dependent biotic interactions. Both niche complementarity and predator avoidance may be the drivers of the observed limiting similarity in the communities.


Ecological drift Environmental filtering Functional diversity Limiting similarity Marine fish 



Data from Esperance, Bremer Bay, Albany, Broke Inlet, Cape Naturaliste, Rottnest Island, Jurien and the Abrolhos Islands were collected through funding provided by an Australian and Western Australian Government Natural Heritage Trust Strategic Project, ‘Securing Western Australia’s Marine Futures’. We thank South Coast Natural Resource Management for access to the data and the staff of the Marine Futures team who collected the data. Dampier data were collected for Woodside Energy, who is thanked for access to this data. Barrow Island data were collected for Chevron, who is thanked for providing access to this data. Ben Fitzpatrick is thanked for providing the Ningaloo data, Jock Clough is thanked for providing the Shark Bay data, and Helen Shortland-Jones is thanked for collating the data. We also thank Howard Choat for assistance in classifying fish trophic attributes on an early draft. This manuscript was greatly improved through the comments of two anonymous reviewers. Fish images in Fig. 1 sourced from

Author contribution statement

BF conceived and designed the study, performed the analyses, and wrote the manuscript. JDR provided editorial advice.

Supplementary material

442_2019_4555_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (4.3 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 4354 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of Western AustraliaAlbanyAustralia

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