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Diversity of plant-eating fishes may be key to recovery of coral reefs
Date:10/8/2008

For endangered coral reefs, not all plant-eating fish are created equal.

A report scheduled to be published this week in the early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that maintaining the proper balance of herbivorous fishes may be critical to restoring coral reefs, which are declining dramatically worldwide. The conclusion results from a long-term study that found significant recovery in sections of coral reefs on which fish of two complementary species were caged.

Coral reefs depend on fish to eat the seaweeds with which the corals compete, and without such cleaning, the reefs decline as corals are replaced by seaweeds. Different fish consume different seaweeds because of the differing chemical and physical properties of the plants.

"Of the many different fish that are part of coral ecosystems, there may be a small number of species that are really critical for keeping big seaweeds from over-growing and killing corals," explained Mark Hay, the Harry and Linda Teasley Professor of Biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Our study shows that in addition to having enough herbivores, coral ecosystems also need the right mix of species to overcome the different defensive tactics of the seaweeds."

By knowing which fish are most critical to maintaining coral health, resource managers could focus on protecting and enhancing the highest-impact species. In situations where local peoples depend on fishing, they might better sustain the reefs on which they depend by harvesting only less critical species.

"This could offer one more approach to resource managers," Hay added. "If ecosystems were managed for critical mixes of herbivorous species, we might see more rapid recovery of the reefs."

Believed to be the first study to demonstrate the importance of herbivore diversity in enhancing the growth of coral reefs, the research was conducted at t
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Contact: John Toon
jtoon@gatech.edu
404-894-6986
Georgia Institute of Technology Research News
Source:Eurekalert  

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