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Curr Biol. 2006 Dec 19;16(24):2434-9.

Sleeping functional group drives coral-reef recovery.

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Australian Research Council, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.


The world's coral reefs are in decline, with many exhibiting a phase shift from coral to macroalgal dominance . This change is often associated with habitat loss and overharvesting of herbivorous fishes, particularly parrotfishes and surgeonfishes . The challenge is to reverse this decline and enhance the resilience of coral-reef ecosystems . We demonstrate, by using a large-scale experimentally induced phase shift, that the rapid reversal from a macroalgal-dominated to a coral- and epilithic algal-dominated state was not a result of herbivory by parrotfishes or surgeonfishes. Surprisingly, phase-shift reversal was primarily driven by a single batfish species (Platax pinnatus), a fish previously regarded as an invertebrate feeder. The 43 herbivorous fishes in the local fauna played only a minor role, suggesting that biodiversity may not offer the protection we hoped for in complex ecosystems. Our findings highlight the dangers faced by coral reefs and other threatened complex ecosystems: Species or functional groups that prevent phase shifts may not be able to reverse phase shifts once they occur. Nevertheless, reversal is possible. The critical issue is to identify and protect those groups that underpin the resilience and regeneration of complex ecosystems.

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