Relative importance of coral cover, habitat complexity and diversity in determining the structure of reef fish communities.
The structure of coral reef habitat has a pronounced influence on the diversity, composition and abundance of reef-associated fishes. However, the particular features of the habitat that are most critical are not always known. Coral habitats can vary in many characteristics, notably live coral cover, topographic complexity and coral diversity, but the relative effects of these habitat characteristics are often not distinguished. Here, we investigate the strength of the relationships between these habitat features and local fish diversity, abundance and community structure in the lagoon of Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef. In a spatial comparison using sixty-six 2m(2) quadrats, fish species richness, total abundance and community structure were examined in relation to a wide range of habitat variables, including topographic complexity, habitat diversity, coral diversity, coral species richness, hard coral cover, branching coral cover and the cover of corymbose corals. Fish species richness and total abundance were strongly associated with coral species richness and cover, but only weakly associated with topographic complexity. Regression tree analysis showed that coral species richness accounted for most of the variation in fish species richness (63.6%), while hard coral cover explained more variation in total fish abundance (17.4%), than any other variable. In contrast, topographic complexity accounted for little spatial variation in reef fish assemblages. In degrading coral reef environments, the potential effects of loss of coral cover and topographic complexity are often emphasized, but these findings suggest that reduced coral biodiversity may ultimately have an equal, or greater, impact on reef-associated fish communities.