Habitat degradation negatively affects auditory settlement behavior of coral reef fishes

Timothy A. C. Gordon, Harry R. Harding, Kathryn E. Wong, Nathan D. Merchant, Mark G. Meekan, Mark I. McCormick, Andrew N. Radford, Stephen D. Simpson

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Coral reefs are increasingly degraded by climate-induced bleaching and storm damage. Reef recovery relies on recruitment of young fishes for the replenishment of functionally important taxa. Acoustic cues guide the orientation, habitat selection, and settlement of many fishes, but these processes may be impaired if degradation alters reef soundscapes. Here, we report spatiotemporally matched evidence of soundscapes altered by degradation from recordings taken before and after recent severe damage on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Postdegradation soundscapes were an average of 15 dB re 1 µPa quieter and had significantly reduced acoustic complexity, richness, and rates of invertebrate snaps compared with their predegradation equivalents. We then used these matched recordings in complementary light-trap and patch-reef experiments to assess responses of wild fish larvae under natural conditions. We show that postdegradation soundscapes were 8% less attractive to presettlement larvae and resulted in 40% less settlement of juvenile fishes than predegradation soundscapes; postdegradation soundscapes were no more attractive than open-ocean sound. However, our experimental design does not allow an estimate of how much attraction and settlement to isolated postdegradation soundscapes might change compared with isolated predegradation soundscapes. Reductions in attraction and settlement were qualitatively similar across and within all trophic guilds and taxonomic groups analyzed. These patterns may lead to declines in fish populations, exacerbating degradation. Acoustic changes might therefore trigger a feedback loop that could impair reef resilience. To understand fully the recovery potential of coral reefs, we must learn to listen.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5193-5198
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2018

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