Demographic dynamics of the smallest marine vertebrates fuel coral reef ecosystem functioning

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Science  21 Jun 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6446, pp. 1189-1192
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav3384

Little fish make a big contribution

Coral reefs represent one of the most biodiverse and rich ecosystems. Such richness conjures up images of coral heads and large colorful reef fishes. Brandl et al. show, however, that one of the most striking and important parts of the reef ecosystem is almost never seen (see the Perspective by Riginos and Leis). Small cryptobenthic fish, like blennies, make up nearly 40% of reef fish biodiversity. Furthermore, the majority of cryptobenthic fish larvae settle locally, rather than being widely dispersed, and have rapid turnover rates. Such high diversity and densities could thus provide the biomass base for larger, better-known reef fish.

Science, this issue p. 1189; see also p. 1128


How coral reefs survive as oases of life in low-productivity oceans has puzzled scientists for centuries. The answer may lie in internal nutrient cycling and/or input from the pelagic zone. Integrating meta-analysis, field data, and population modeling, we show that the ocean’s smallest vertebrates, cryptobenthic reef fishes, promote internal reef fish biomass production through extensive larval supply from the pelagic environment. Specifically, cryptobenthics account for two-thirds of reef fish larvae in the near-reef pelagic zone despite limited adult reproductive outputs. This overwhelming abundance of cryptobenthic larvae fuels reef trophodynamics via rapid growth and extreme mortality, producing almost 60% of consumed reef fish biomass. Although cryptobenthics are often overlooked, their distinctive demographic dynamics may make them a cornerstone of ecosystem functioning on modern coral reefs.

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