Research Article

Chemically mediated behavior of recruiting corals and fishes: A tipping point that may limit reef recovery

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Science  22 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6199, pp. 892-897
DOI: 10.1126/science.1255057

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Corals and reef fish choose nice homes

Young animals tend to disperse into new habitats. Can we use populations in protected areas to colonize nearby recovering or overused habitats? It seems that for corals and reef fish, the answer may be no. Dixson et al. show that dispersing juvenile corals and reef fish were overwhelmingly attracted to healthy reefs but were repelled by seaweeds that colonize degraded reefs (see the Perspective by Bruno). Thus, even species that appear passive in their choice of habitat may have stronger preferences than we thought.

Science, this issue p. 892; see also p. 879


Coral reefs are in global decline, converting from dominance by coral to dominance by seaweed. Once seaweeds become abundant, coral recovery is suppressed unless herbivores return to remove seaweeds, and corals then recruit. Variance in the recovery of fishes and corals is not well understood. We show that juveniles of both corals and fishes are repelled by chemical cues from fished, seaweed-dominated reefs but attracted to cues from coral-dominated areas where fishing is prohibited. Chemical cues of specific seaweeds from degraded reefs repulsed recruits, and cues from specific corals that are typical of healthy reefs attracted recruits. Juveniles were present at but behaviorally avoided recruiting to degraded reefs dominated by seaweeds. For recovery, degraded reefs may need to be managed to produce cues that attract, rather than repel, recruiting corals and fishes.

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