Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Biological Sciences


Biological Sciences


College of Science and Mathematics


Benjamin Ruttenberg

Advisor Department

Biological Sciences

Advisor College

College of Science and Mathematics


Parrotfishes (Scarinae) are dominant Caribbean herbivores that play an important role in reducing coral-algae competition by grazing algae; yet some species are also occasional coral predators (corallivores) and thereby can have direct negative impacts on coral growth and survivorship. There is concern that parrotfish corallivory may contribute to substantial long-term declines in targeted coral species, particularly in areas with a high biomass of parrotfishes and low cover of corals. However, the capacity of target coral species to heal from parrotfish predation and the ecological drivers of corallivory are poorly understood.

In Chapter 1, we examined the patterns of coral healing from parrotfish predation scars on Orbicella annularis – an ecologically important framework building coral that is one of the most intensely grazed Caribbean coral species and an endangered species. While some researchers have suggested that parrotfishes may have significant long-term impacts on heavily targeted species such as O. annularis, the patterns of coral recovery from parrotfish predation scars remain poorly understood. To address this knowledge gap, we tracked the fate of parrotfish bite scars on O. annularis colonies across two Caribbean islands for up to two months. We evaluated differences in coral healing between islands in response to a number of variables including the initial scar surface area, scar abundance per coral colony, colony surface area, and water depth. We used these data to develop a predictive model of O. annularis tissue loss from recent parrotfish bite scars. We then applied this model to surveys of the distribution of bite scars at a point in time to estimate long-term tissue loss of O. annularis colonies from a standing stock of bite scars. Our findings suggest that the initial scar surface area is one of the most important predictors of coral tissue loss. The data also indicate that there are thresholds in patterns of coral tissue regeneration: we observed that small scars (≤1.25 cm2) often fully heal, while larger scars (≥8.2 cm2) had minimal tissue regeneration. The vast majority of observed scars (~87%) were 1.25 cm2 or less and our model predicted that O. annularis colonies would regenerate nearly all the corresponding scar area. In contrast, while scars greater than or equal to than 8.2 cm2 were infrequent (~6% of all observed scars), our model predicted that these larger scars would account for over 96% of the total tissue loss for grazed colonies. Overall, our results suggest that the immediate negative impacts of parrotfish predation on coral tissue loss appear to be driven primarily by a few exceptionally large bite scars. While further work is needed to understand the long-term impacts of corallivory and quantify the net impacts of parrotfish herbivory and corallivory on Caribbean coral reefs, this study is an important step in addressing factors that impact the recovery of a heavily targeted and ecologically important Caribbean coral from parrotfish predation.

In Chapter 2, we examined the ecological drivers of corallivory across all coral taxa and across three regions of the Greater Caribbean – the Florida Keys, St. Croix, and Bonaire. To do so, we observed how parrotfish grazing intensity varied using both size and abundance-based metrics across multiple spatial scales. At the reef community and regional scale, we found no effect of the biomass of corallivorous parrotfishes or the percent cover of target coral species on the intensity of parrotfish corallivory. However, at the scale of individual coral colonies, we found that coral taxa and colony size were important predictors of corallivory intensity, and that predation intensity increased as colony size increased. Our findings suggest that previous assertions that conservation of corallivorous parrotfishes may have net negative impacts on coral communities, particularly as live coral cover declines, are not supported at the reef-scale. Instead, our research suggests that colony-level traits such as coral taxa and colony size may be stronger drivers of predation intensity. Additionally, our research suggests that parrotfishes do not heavily graze upon the majority of coral species, but have a higher level of grazing intensity on three taxa, Orbicella annularis, Porites astreoides and other Porites spp. across multiple regions of the Caribbean. Therefore, the direct consequences of parrotfish corallivory for coral tissue loss are likely low for the majority of coral species, but further research is needed to better understand the ultimate causes of selective predation and the long-term consequences of corallivory for heavily targeted coral taxa.