Dual roles of an algal farming damselfish as a cultivator and opportunistic browser of an invasive seaweed

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Herbivory is a fundamental process determining reef resilience, and while algal farming damselfishes can help shape benthic assemblages, an understanding of their contribution to areas outside of defended territories is relatively unexplored. Here, we demonstrate how the farming damselfish Stegastes marginatus plays a dual role in benthic structuring by 1) contributing to persistence of the invasive macroalga Acanthophora spicifera within a Hawaiian marine protected area, where the macroalga occurred exclusively inside Stegastes territories, and 2) behaving as an opportunistic browser of the exotic alga outside their territorial borders. Greater than 50% of the biomass of tethered A. spicifera was consumed within one-hour when placed outside Stegastes territories, compared to <5% lost from tethers within territories or herbivore exclusion cages. In situ remote video revealed that tethered A. spicifera located outside territories was grazed primarily by the surgeonfish Acanthurus nigrofuscus (∼68% of total bites) and, surprisingly, by S. marginatus (∼27% of total bites) that left their territories to feed on this resource on 107 occasions during 400 min of filming. Further, for over half of those occurrences where S. marginatus grazed on the tethered macroalga outside of territories, they fed alongside conspecifics and other species, displaying little of the aggressiveness that characterizes this damselfish. These results show that S. marginatus plays a wider role in determining benthic assemblages than previously recognized, acting both as cultivators of a canopy-forming invasive macroalga within their territories, and as opportunistic browsers in neighboring sites. Consequently, S. marginatus can affect benthic species composition across their territory borders. These results provide a rare example of interspecific facilitation of an exotic alga by an indigenous marine fish. Accounting for fish behaviors more broadly is important to further our understanding of ecological processes that shape reef ecosystems to improve management of MPAs that often support extensive farming damselfish populations.

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PloS one

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