A natural experiment used data collected over 20 years from reefs spread over 115,000 km2 of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to test how the loss of live coral versus loss of habitat complexity influenced reef fish community structure, reef fish diversity and fish species abundance. Reefs from a long-term monitoring program were classified into three treatments based on disturbance effects. On reefs with a major decline in complexity and live coral cover there were substantial shifts in fish and benthic communities. Species abundance declined with local disappearance of some fish species, including commercially valuable species. However, impacts to fish and benthic communities were minor on reefs that lost live coral cover without losing habitat complexity. Overall, habitat complexity is of fundamental importance for reef fishes, and maintaining diverse communities is critical for overall ecosystem health and function.

Author: Emslie, M.J., A.J. Cheal, and A.K. Johns
Year: 2014
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PLoS ONE 9(8): e105384. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0105384

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