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PLoS One. 2019 May 17;14(5):e0216785. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216785. eCollection 2019.

Variability in the functional composition of coral reef fish communities on submerged and emergent reefs in the central Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Author information

Marine Biology and Aquaculture Science, College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
Queensland Museum Network, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.


On coral reefs, depth and gradients related to depth (e.g. light and wave exposure) influence the composition of fish communities. However, most studies focus only on emergent reefs that break the sea surface in shallow waters (<10 m). On the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), submerged reefs (reefs that do not break the sea surface) occupy an area equivalent to all emergent reefs. However, submerged reefs have received comparatively little research attention, and fish communities associated with submerged reefs remain poorly quantified. Here, we quantify fish assemblages at each of three depths (10, 20 and 30 m) on eight submerged reefs (four mid-shelf and four outer-shelf) and two nearby emergent reefs in the central GBR where reef habitat extends from 0-~25 m depth. We examine how total fish abundance, the abundance of 13 functional groups, and the functional composition of fish communities varies among depths, reef types (submerged versus emergent reefs), and shelf position (mid-shelf versus outer-shelf). Overall fish abundance decreased sevenfold with depth, but declined less steeply (twofold) on outer-shelf submerged reefs than on both mid-shelf submerged reefs and emergent reefs. The functional composition of the fish assemblage also varied significantly among depths and reef types. Turnover in the functional composition of the fish community was also steeper on the mid-shelf, suggesting that shallow-affiliated groups extend further in deeper water on the outer-shelf. Ten of the 13 functional groups were more strongly associated with the shallowest depths (the upper reef slope of emergent reefs or the 'crests' of submerged reefs), two groups (soft coral/sponge feeders and mesopredators) were more abundant at the deepest sites. Our results confirm that submerged reefs in the central GBR support a wide range of coral reef fishes, and are an important component of the GBR ecosystem.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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