Santa Barbara, Calif. Can fish save coral reefs from dying? UC Santa Barbara researchers have found one case where fish have helped coral reefs to recover from cyclones and predators.
Coral reefs worldwide are increasingly disturbed by environmental events that are causing their decline, yet some coral reefs recover. UCSB researchers have discovered that the health of coral reefs in the South Pacific island of Moorea, in French Polynesia, may be due to protection by parrotfish and surgeonfish that eat algae, along with the protection of reefs that shelter juvenile fish.
The findings are published in a recent issue of the journal PLoS ONE. The UCSB research team is part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-Term Ecological Research (MCR LTER) project, funded by the National Science Foundation.
In many cases, especially in the case of severely damaged reefs in the Caribbean, coral reefs that suffer large losses of live coral often become overgrown with algae and never return to a state where the reefs are again largely covered by live coral. In contrast, the reefs surrounding Moorea experienced large losses of live coral in the past most recently in the early 1980's and have returned each time to a system dominated by healthy, live corals.
"We wanted to know why Moorea's reefs seem to act differently than other reefs," said Tom Adam, first author, research associate with MCR LTER, and postdoctoral fellow at UCSB's Marine Science Institute. "Specifically, we wanted to know what ecological factors might be responsible for the dramatic patterns of recovery observed in Moorea."
The research team was surprised by its findings. The biomass of herbivores on the reef fish and other animals that eat plants like algae increased dramatically following the loss of live coral. "What was surprising to us was that the numbers of these species also increased dramatically," said Andrew Brooks, co-author, deputy program direct
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University of California - Santa Barbara