As coral reef ecosystems decline in health worldwide, reef-associated fishes are being impacted by changes to their coral reef habitats. While previous studies have shown coral reef structure to affect the demography of reef fishes, changes in reef conditions may also impact the behavior of reef fishes as they cope with altered habitats. In this study, we examined spatial patterns of intraspecific behavioral variation in the bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus) across the fringing reefs of Curaçao (Caribbean Sea), and explored how this behavioral variation associated with physical and social conditions on the reef. Principal components analysis (PCA) condensed physical parameters of the reef into principal component 1 (PC1), comprising depth, coral cover (%), rugosity, and average hole size (cm2), and principal component 2 (PC2), which represented the number of holes. PC1, but not PC2, increased spatially across the reef as the habitat transitioned from coral rubble in the shallows to live coral on the reef slope. This transition in reef structure was paralleled by changes in social conditions including decreases in bicolor damselfish density in habitats with higher PC1 values. The behavior of bicolor damselfish also varied spatially with greater aggression and more frequent shelter use in habitats with lower PC1 values. Path analysis revealed robust associations between this behavioral variation and physical habitat conditions of the reef, indicating that physical – rather than social – habitat variation is the primary determinant of these spatial patterns of intraspecific behavioral variation. Taken as a whole, this coupling between physical reef structure and behavior suggests that reef fish may show altered behaviors on coral reefs degraded by anthropogenic impacts.



Publisher statement

This is the pre-peer reviewed version of the following article: Physical habitat and social conditions across a coral reef shape spatial patterns of intraspecific behavioral variation in a demersal fish, Meagan N. Schrandt, Kristin M. Hardy, Kaitlin M. Johnson & Sean C. Lema, Marine Ecology: An Evolutionary Perspective.

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