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Lawnmowers of the sea

December 05, 2016

Grazing on algae is a full-time job for a highly specialized group of coral reef fish.

In a new study, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego-led research team examined the unique grazing roles of algae-eating herbivores on coral reefs to learn more about how they help keep corals from being overgrown by seaweeds.

To find out, Scripps marine ecologist Emily Kelly and her research team recorded the feeding behaviors of 15 of the most common species of algae-eating fish, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish on a coral reef in Maui, Hawaii. The study, conducted over a four-year period, compared these observations to the stomach contents of several of the fish species as well as the habitat in which different fish were grazing.

Kelly's team discovered that despite large-scale similarities across all species in the consumption of "turf algae," a group of algae comprised of a number of different species, a finer scale analysis revealed that individual species are actually selectively grazing on different types of algae and in different ways.

"These 'lawnmowers' on the reef are selective in the types of algae they consume and the impact of each bite," said Kelly, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Scripps Coral Reef Ecology Lab. "These fish are in fact each a different type of gardening tool with a slightly different function in grazing."

A diverse community of herbivores is necessary to promote healthy reefs, and by understanding their algae-eating behaviors, this study can help better manage and protect coral reefs worldwide, according to the researchers.

"Understanding the role of individual fish species is important for knowing how the herbivore community as a whole can influence reef composition and reef health," said Kelly.
-end-
Along with Kelly, Scripps researchers Yoan Eynaud, Samantha Clements, Molly Gleason, and Jennifer Smith co-authored the study published in the Dec. print edition of the journal Oecologia. The research team also included Russell Sparks from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, and Ivor Williams of NOAA's Coral Reef Ecosystem Program.

The National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative, Mia Tegner Fellowship, Women Divers Hall of Fame, Explorers Club Exploration Fund, the Sussman Fellowship, and the Oceanids Memorial Fellowship provided funding for the study. The NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program funded the coral reef surveys.

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About Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest, and most important centers for global science research and education in the world. Now in its second century of discovery, the scientific scope of the institution has grown to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical, and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. Hundreds of research programs covering a wide range of scientific areas are under way today on every continent and in every ocean. The institution has a staff of more than 1,400 and annual expenditures of approximately $195 million from federal, state, and private sources. Scripps operates oceanographic research vessels recognized worldwide for their outstanding capabilities. Equipped with innovative instruments for ocean exploration, these ships constitute mobile laboratories and observatories that serve students and researchers from institutions throughout the world. Birch Aquarium at Scripps serves as the interpretive center of the institution and showcases Scripps research and a diverse array of marine life through exhibits and programming for more than 430,000 visitors each year. Learn more at scripps.ucsd.edu and follow us at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram.

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At the University of California San Diego, we constantly push boundaries and challenge expectations. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren't afraid to take risks and redefine conventional wisdom. Today, as one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth, and make our world a better place. Learn more at http://www.ucsd.edu.

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