Standard Talk (15 mins) Australian Society for Fish Biology Conference 2022

Are fish communities on coral reefs becoming less colourful (#30)

Christopher R. Hemingson 1 2 3 , Michalis Mihalitsis 4 , David R. Bellwood 1 2 3
  1. College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
  2. Australian research Council, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
  3. Research Hub for Coral Reef Ecosystem Function, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
  4. Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California at Davis, Davis, California, United States of America

An organism's colouration is often linked to the environment in which it lives. The fishes that inhabit coral reefs are extremely diverse in colouration, but the specific environmental factors that support this extreme diversity remain unclear. Interestingly, much of the aesthetic and intrinsic value humans place on coral reefs (a core ecosystem service they provide) is based on this extreme diversity of colours. However, like many processes on coral reefs, the relationship between colouration and the environment is likely to be impacted by global environmental change. Using a novel community-level measure of fish colouration, as perceived by humans, we explore the potential links between fish community colouration and the environment. We then asked if this relationship is impacted by human-induced environmental disturbances, e.g. mass coral bleaching events, using a community-level dataset spanning 27 years on the Great Barrier Reef. We found that the diversity of colours found within a fish community is directly related to the composition of the local environment. Areas with a higher cover of structurally complex corals contained fish species with more diverse and brighter colourations. Most notably, fish community colouration contracted significantly in the years following the 1998 global coral bleaching event. Fishes with colouration directly appealing to human aesthetics are becoming increasingly rare, with the potential for marked declines in the perceived colour of reef fish communities in the near future. Future reefs may not be the colourful ecosystems we recognize today, representing the loss of a culturally significant ecosystem service.