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Tulane University

Publication Date

Fall 2021

Program Name

Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation


Reef fish are a physically and functionally diverse group of organisms that live in close association with coral reef habitats. Chaetodontidae represents the most species rich family of corallivorous fish, and their reliance on corals as food resources has led to their designation as indicator species of coral cover and health. However, the majority of research on the foraging ecology of Caribbean Chaetodontids dates back several decades, and therefore does not account for recent changes in coral community composition as the result of disease, climate change, and other stressors. As the novel and deadly stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) epidemic causes mass mortality of reef building corals on Caribbean reefs, corallivores are expected to be among the first species impacted by changing reef conditions. Therefore, baseline data on population sizes and behaviors are needed from healthy reefs in order to fully understand the shifts that are occurring on diseased reefs. Here, benthic surveys and focal follow methods were used to investigate the abundances, foraging behaviors, and dietary preferences of C. capistratus populations on reefs without SCTLD near Porvenir Island in the Guna Yala Comarca of Panamá. C. capistratus were found to forage more often than expected on less abundant coral species including Siderastrea spp., Orbicella spp., and brain corals, and less often than expected on more abundant coral species including Agaricia spp. and Porites spp. C. capistratus was also observed foraging on sand and algae substrates in addition to coral prey. Therefore, this research supports previous classifications of C. capistratus as an active generalist, but disputes the designation of C. capistratus as an anthozoan specialist. Contrary to previous findings, the abundance of C. capistratus was not positively correlated with coral cover. This is potentially explained by the wider dietary niche reported for the studied population in comparison to other populations of C. capistratus. The diverse diet observed here suggests that C. capistratus populations exhibit behavioral and dietary plasticity, and can exploit reefs with varying degrees of coral cover. This dietary flexibility may be important for the resilience of the species in the face of dramatic losses of live coral cover due to SCTLD.


Biodiversity | Environmental Monitoring | Oceanography | Research Methods in Life Sciences | Zoology

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