Spatial patterns in abundance of a damselfish reflect availability of suitable habitat
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For species with metapopulation structures, variation in abundance among patches can arise from variation in the input rate of colonists. For reef fishes, variability in larval supply frequently is invoked as a major determinant of spatial patterns. We examined the extent to which spatial variation in the amount of suitable habitat predicted variation in the abundance of the damselfish Dascyllus aruanus, an abundant planktivore that occupies live, branched coral throughout the Indo-Pacific. Reef surveys established that size, branching structure and location (proximity to sand) of the coral colonies together determined the ”suitability” of microhabitats for different ontogenetic stages of D. aruanus. Once these criteria were known, patterns of habitat use were quantified within lagoons of five Pacific islands. Availability of suitable habitat generally was an excellent predictor of density, and patterns were qualitatively consistent at several spatial scales, including among different lagoons on the same island, among different islands and between the central (French Polynesia and Rarotonga) and western (Great Barrier Reef, Australia) South Pacific. A field experiment that varied the amount of suitable coral among local plots indicated that habitat for settlers accounted for almost all of the spatial variation in the number of D. aruanus that settled at that location, suggesting that spatial patterns of abundance can be established at settlement without spatial variation in larval supply. Surveys of four other species of reef-associated fish revealed that a substantial fraction of their spatial variation in density also was explained by availability of suitable reef habitat, suggesting that habitat may be a prevalent determinant of spatial patterns. The results underscore the critical need to identify accurately the resource requirements of different species and life stages when evaluating causes of spatial variation in abundance of reef fishes.
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