TALLAHASSEE, Fla. To the casual observer in the Gulf of Mexico, the seemingly sluggish red grouper is more of a couch potato than a busy beaver. But a new study led by researchers at The Florida State University reveals the fish to be both architect and ecosystem engineer.
Most abundant along Florida's west coast but also found on watery ledges and in crevices and caverns from North Carolina to Brazil, the red grouper excavates and maintains complex, three-dimensional structures that provide critical habitats for the spiny lobster and many other commercially important species in the Gulf of Mexico. The researchers watched it work hard to remove sand from the sea floor, exposing hard rocks crucial to corals and sponges and the animals they shelter.
In fact, the red grouper's sandy architecture is a monument to the interconnectedness of species and the vital role such connections play in the structural and functional diversity of the ocean, suggests Felicia C. Coleman, director of Florida State University's Coastal and Marine Laboratory.
"Watching these fish dig holes was amazing enough," Coleman said, "but then we realized that the sites they created served to attract mates, beneficial species such as cleaner shrimp that pick parasites and food scraps off the resident fish, and a variety of prey species for the red grouper. So it is no surprise that the fish are remarkably sedentary. Why move if you are clever enough to make everything you need come to you?"
Coleman and Christopher C. Koenig her spouse and fellow faculty member in the Department of Biological Science describe their study in a paper ("Benthic Habitat Modification through Excavation by Red Grouper, Epinephelus morio, in the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico") published online Jan. 9 in The Open Fish Science Journal. Their co-authors are Kathryn M. Scanlon, of the U.S. Geological Survey, Woods Hole, Mass.; Scott Heppell and Selena Heppell, Department of Fisher
|Contact: Felicia Coleman|
Florida State University