Climate-driven shift in coral morphological structure predicts decline of juvenile reef fishes

Luisa Fontoura, Kyle J. A. Zawada, Stephanie D’agata, Mariana Álvarez-Noriega, Andrew H. Baird, Nader Boutros, Maria Dornelas, Osmar J. Luiz, Joshua S. Madin, Joseph M. Maina, Oscar Pizarro, Damaris Torres-Pulliza, Rachael M. Woods, Elizabeth M. P. Madin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Rapid intensification of environmental disturbances has sparked widespread decline and compositional shifts in foundation species in ecosystems worldwide. Now, an emergent challenge is to understand the consequences of shifts and losses in such habitat-forming species for associated communities and ecosystem processes. Recently, consecutive coral bleaching events shifted the morphological makeup of habitat-forming coral assemblages on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Considering the disparity of coral morphological growth forms in shelter provision for reef fishes, we investigated how shifts in the morphological structure of coral assemblages affect the abundance of juvenile and adult reef fishes. We used a temporal dataset from shallow reefs in the northern GBR to estimate coral convexity (a fine-scale quantitative morphological trait) and two widely used coral habitat descriptors (coral cover and reef rugosity) for disentangling the effects of coral morphology on reef fish assemblages. Changes in coral convexity, rather than live coral cover or reef rugosity, disproportionately affected juvenile reef fishes when compared to adults, and explained more than 20% of juvenile decline. The magnitude of this effect varied by fish body size with juveniles of small-bodied species showing higher vulnerability to changes in coral morphology. Our findings suggest that continued large-scale shifts in the relative abundance of morphological groups within coral assemblages are likely to affect population replenishment and dynamics of future reef fish communities. The different responses of juvenile and adult fishes according to habitat descriptors indicate that focusing on coarse-scale metrics alone may mask fine-scale ecological responses that are key to understand ecosystem functioning and resilience. Nonetheless, quantifying coral morphological traits may contribute to forecasting the structure of reef fish communities on novel reef ecosystems shaped by climate change.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGlobal Change Biology
VolumeEarly View
Early online date14 Dec 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Dec 2019


  • Body size
  • Climate change
  • Community ecology
  • Coral reefs
  • Habitat structure
  • Morphological traits


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