- Because many coral-reef fishes are observable in situ, are amenable to transplantation, have small home ranges and short generation times, they provide a excellent system to investigate many topics within general ecology, fisheries biology, and conservation biology. The primary goal of this dissertation was to use the coral-reef fishes system to investigate two pressing sets of issues that face marine ecologists and managers of living marine resources. The first topic is the spatial and temporal patterns of larval dispersal and reproductive success in a marine metapopulation (Chapter 2). Because miniscule larvae are difficult to track in the vast pelagic environment, little is known about the patterns of larval dispersal. Yet, the more that is understood about the spatial and temporal variability in larval dispersal, the easier it will be to identify sites that are self-sustaining and exporting larvae to unprotect sites, a common goal of marine reserves. Incorporating this information into siting of marine reserves will improve their effectiveness. The second topic is fundamental in the ecology of biological invasions: species specific interactions between an invasive predator and native species. Specifically, I investigated the ability of an invasive predator to disrupt natural population regulation of a native prey species (Chapter 3), and the ability of a native predator to provide biotic resistance against the invasive species (Chapter 4). Because management of the lionfish invasion is needed throughout the Caribbean and Atlantic waters, it is necessary to understand not only how lionfish can change the native system, but also potential ways to moderate the negative effects.
To address the first topic, we collected a total of 3,278 genetic tissue samples from bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus) over a four year period from reefs near four islands that encompass Exuma Sound, Bahamas (Chapter 2). Using a Bayesian parentage analysis, eight parent-offspring pairs were detected, which directly documented both connectivity between and self-recruitment on an ecological time scale. Remarkably, some larvae returned to the exact same reef where they were spawned, while others traveled to sites greater than 100 km distance. The only study island without a detected parent-offspring pair, Lee Stocking Island, was also the island that showed the most restrictive gene flow on evolutionary time scales. Additionally, variability was documented in the spatial and temporal signatures of sweepstakes reproduction and Wahlund effects. The variation we observed may be influenced by seasonal mesoscale gyres present in Exuma Sound, which play a prominent role in shaping local oceanographic patterns. Understanding how to identify pathways of larval dispersal is important to designing networks of marine reserves, because a common goal of reserves is to protect populations that are self-seeding and can export larvae. Thus, this research not only demonstrates that temporal variability is a prominent characteristic of larval dispersal, but provides an example of how to identify these populations.
To address the second topic, two studies using both lab observations and manipulative field experiments were conducted to study the interaction between invasive Indo-Pacific red lionfish (Pterois volitans) and two different native species. In the first study (Chapter 3) three different data sets were used to document the effect of lionfish predation on their top prey species, the bridled goby (Coryphopterus glaucofraenum). The first data set was extracted from three previous studies to compare the change in abundance of bridled goby between patch reefs with lionfish and patch reefs that were predator-free. The second data set came from laboratory feeding trials to test for the presence of a size refuge for bridled goby caused by lionfish gape limitation. The third data set came from a manipulative field experiment using 22 nearshore reefs where the per capita mortality of bridled gobies was compared among four orthogonal predator treatments: (1) predator-free control, (2) a single native predator only -- the graysby grouper (Cephalopholis cruentatus) -- representing the pre-invasion system, (3) a single lionfish only, and (4) one native grouper and one lionfish, representing the invaded system. The combined results from these three data sets demonstrated that lionfish can consistently consume a significant amount and an extremely high proportion of bridled goby on small patch reefs. While small lionfish cannot eat bridled goby larger than 0.42 times their body size, large lionfish eat virtually the entire size range of bridled goby. These findings indicate that lionfish have the potential to extirpate local goby populations. In the second experiment, lionfish were exposed to different abundances of a native grouper, the Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), on 28 nearshore patch reefs in the Bahamas. Lionfish persistence and growth was monitored over 10 weeks, as well as the abundance of small, < 5 cm total length (TL), native reef fishes. Nassau grouper did not affect lionfish persistence or growth. Yet, reefs with a lionfish and many Nassau grouper saw a significant increase in the abundance of small reef fishes compared to reefs with only lionfish or lionfish with few grouper. Thus, it appears that high densities of Nassau grouper provide some biotic resistance on Bahamian patch reefs by potentially interfering with lionfish predation on native fishes, perhaps by interrupting stalking behavior.
This dissertation highlights the flexibility of the coral-reef fishes system for investigation of broadly different topics in basic and applied ecology. Coral-reef fishes are a tractable system for both large and small scale studies, as well as laboratory observations and manipulative field experiments. The findings of this dissertation advance the understanding of metapopulation dynamics and have implications for fisheries management and marine reserve design. This research also documents further evidence of the negative effects of lionfish, yet provides some promising findings that may indicate some native biotic resistance to this devastating of marine invasions.