Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Biological Sciences


Biological Sciences


Benjamin Ruttenberg


Coral reefs are one of the world’s most diverse yet heavily impacted marine ecosystems. As a result of many direct and indirect stressors, coral reefs have experienced major degradation over the last several decades. Declines in coral reefs in the Caribbean have been particularly acute and generally associated with the loss of key herbivores and an increase in algae. Herbivorous fishes such as parrotfishes can positively impact coral reefs by removing algae that compete with corals for light and space. However, many parrotfishes are also important coral predators. Predation on corals, known as corallivory, can adversely affect coral growth, reproduction and survivorship. In this time of changing environments and coral reef decline, understanding the context-dependent nature of parrotfish foraging behavior is of critical importance to scientists and managers. Knowledge of the responses of parrotfishes across a range of resource abundance will help scientists and managers better predict the impacts that these herbivores have on benthic communities as both herbivores and corallivores.

In Chapter 1, we examined how six different species of coral reef herbivores (i.e. parrotfishes), all of which belong to a single feeding guild but represent a range of dietary specialization, respond to changes in the abundance of preferred food items. We conducted behavioral observations of parrotfishes in two regions of the Greater Caribbean, and compared consumption rates, diet preferences, and foraging territory size in relation to natural variation across sites in preferred resource abundance. We found that the more-specialized parrotfishes increased their dietary specialization, had smaller foraging territories, and increased their feeding rate with increased preferred resource abundance. In contrast, less-specialized species exhibited constant foraging traits regardless of the abundance of their preferred resources. This study suggests that differences in dietary preference, specialization, and subsequent nutritional demand may drive a differential response in foraging behavior by generalists and specialist herbivores to changes in resource abundance. Recognizing that generalists and specialists differ in the degree to which their foraging behaviors are context-dependent can allow researchers to better predict how herbivores shape the structure and function of marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

In Chapter 2, we determined if and how corallivory rates and intensity by parrotfishes differ between two regions of the Greater Caribbean that vary in coral and parrotfish community composition and abundance. We found that more species of parrotfishes than previous studies suggest contribute to corallivory. However, corallivory rates and selectivity for coral species by parrotfishes were largely context-dependent, particularly with regards to the relative abundance of preferred corals and diversity of corallivores at a given site. Although we found that corallivory rates decrease with coral cover, it appears that areas of low coral cover may have high corallivory intensity and coral tissue loss, in part due to the relatively high abundance of corallivores in these areas. The impact of high corallivory intensity and tissue loss requires further knowledge regarding the fate of bite scars on corals.This information will help predict the positive and negative consequences of parrotfishes on coral persistence in the Caribbean.

Evidence provided in this thesis furthers our understanding of the dual role of parrotfishes as herbivores and corallivores. Additionally, it reveals the implications of changing coral reef habitats on parrotfish behavior and subsequent coral reef health and resilience.

Available for download on Sunday, June 06, 2021