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Limited Functional Redundancy in a High Diversity System: Single Species Dominates Key Ecological Process on Coral Reefs

Abstract

Herbivory is a key process structuring plant communities in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, with variation in herbivory often being related to shifts between alternate states. On coral reefs, regional reductions in herbivores have underpinned shifts from coral to dominance by leathery macroalgae. These shifts appear difficult to reverse as these macroalgae are unpalatable to the majority of herbivores, and the macroalgae suppress the recruitment and growth of corals. The removal of macroalgae is, therefore, viewed as a key ecological process on coral reefs. On the Great Barrier Reef, Sargassum is a dominant macroalgal species following experimentally induced coral–macroalgal phase-shifts. We, therefore, used Sargassum assays and remote video cameras to directly quantify the species responsible for removing macroalgae across a range of coral reef habitats on Lizard Island, northern Great Barrier Reef. Despite supporting over 50 herbivorous fish species and six macroalgal browsing species, the video footage revealed that a single species, Naso unicornis, was almost solely responsible for the removal of Sargassum biomass across all habitats. Of the 42,246 bites taken from the Sargassum across all habitats, N. unicornis accounted for 89.8% (37,982) of the total bites, and 94.6% of the total mass standardized bites. This limited redundancy, both within and across local scales, underscores the need to assess the functional roles of individual species. Management and conservation strategies may need to look beyond the preservation of species diversity and focus on the maintenance of ecological processes and the protection of key species in critical functional groups.

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Acknowledgments

We thank P. Cowman, C. Lefèvre, and S. Wismer for field assistance, and J. Hoey for assistance with video analysis. Comments by J. Hoey, S. Wismer, T. Done and two anonymous reviewers greatly improved the manuscript. We thank the staff at the Lizard Island Research Station—a facility of the Australian Museum for invaluable field support. Financial support was provided by The Ian Potter Doctoral Fellowship at Lizard Island (ASH), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Research Council (DRB).

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Correspondence to Andrew S. Hoey.

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Hoey, A.S., Bellwood, D.R. Limited Functional Redundancy in a High Diversity System: Single Species Dominates Key Ecological Process on Coral Reefs. Ecosystems 12, 1316–1328 (2009) doi:10.1007/s10021-009-9291-z

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Keywords

  • Naso unicornis
  • functional redundancy
  • phase-shift
  • macroalgae
  • Sargassum
  • coral reef
  • herbivory