Reef fishes weaken dietary preferences after coral mortality, altering resource overlap

Robert F. Semmler*, Nathan J. Sanders, Paul J. CaraDonna, Andrew H Baird, Xin Jing, James P.W. Robinson, Nicholas A.J. Graham, Sally A Keith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The direct and indirect effects of climate change can affect, and are mediated by, changes in animal behaviour. However, we often lack sufficient empirical data to assess how large-scale disturbances affect the behaviour of individuals, which scales up to influence communities. Here, we investigate these patterns by focusing on the foraging behaviour of butterflyfishes, prominent coral-feeding fishes on coral reefs, before and after a mass coral bleaching event in Iriomote, Japan. In response to 65% coral mortality, coral-feeding fishes broadened their diets, showing a significant weakening of dietary preferences across species. Multiple species reduced their consumption of bleaching-sensitive Acropora corals, while expanding their diets to consume a variety of other coral genera. This resulted in decreased dietary overlap among butterflyfishes. Behavioural changes in response to bleaching may increase resilience of coral reef fishes in the short term. However, coral mortality has reduced populations of coral-feeders world-wide, indicating the changes in feeding behaviour we document here may not be sufficient to ensure long-term resilience of butterflyfishes on coral reefs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2125-2134
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2022


  • bottom-up effects
  • coral bleaching
  • dietary preferences
  • foraging behaviour
  • resource partitioning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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