Environmental Biology of Fishes
Branching corals, like many in the genus Acropora, provide structurally complex habitats for reef fishes and other organisms. Fluctuations in the abundance, distribution and characteristics of thicket forming staghorn Acroporids may contribute to changes in the abundance and species composition of reef fishes due to changes in the availability of shelter habitat and food. Farming damselfishes of the genus Stegastes can occur in high abundances in staghorn corals and actively defend food and nest space against organisms that threaten these resources. Here we assess the value of staghorn as habitat for fishes in the central South Pacific, and how the presence of territorial farming damselfishes may influence the assemblage of fishes that associate with staghorn corals. Surveys of 185 Acropora pulchra patches located in the lagoons surrounding the island of Moorea, French Polynesia revealed 85 species of fish from 25 families. Total fish abundance and species richness values ranged from no fish on a patch to a high of 275 individuals and 26 species. Patch area was the most important characteristic in explaining variation in attributes of the fish assemblage, with other characteristics explaining little of the species composition or trophic structure. Behavioral observations revealed that farming damselfishes were most aggressive toward corallivores, herbivores, and egg predators, while they ignored most carnivores and omnivores. Despite this pattern, we observed positive covariance between Stegastes and the group of fishes that elicited the strongest aggressive response when the effect of patch area was removed, suggesting these fishes remain drawn to the resources produced or enhanced by Stegastes on A. pulchra.