Letter | Published:

Resilience and signatures of tropicalization in protected reef fish communities

Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 6267 (2014) | Download Citation


Habitat reserves can promote ecological resilience to climate variability by supporting intact trophic webs and large-bodied individuals1,2,3. Protection may also alter community responses to long-term climate change by offering habitat for range-shifting species4. Here we analyse the species richness, diversity and functional traits of temperate reef fish communities over 20 years in a global warming hotspot and compare patterns in a marine reserve with nearby sites open to fishing. Species richness and diversity oscillated strongly on the decadal scale. Long-term warming signatures were also present as increasing functional trait richness and functional diversity, driven in part by a general increase in herbivores. Nevertheless, reserve sites were distinguished from fished sites by displaying: greater stability in some aspects of biodiversity; recovery of large-bodied temperate species; resistance to colonization by subtropical vagrants; and less pronounced increases in the community-averaged temperature affinity. We empirically demonstrate that protection from fishing has buffered fluctuations in biodiversity and provided resistance to the initial stages of tropicalization.

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We are grateful for the contributions of the many field technicians that assisted with diving surveys over the 20-year monitoring period, to A. Schaap and P. Bosworth for initiating the monitoring programme, to C. Buxton for continuing lab support, to J. Lefcheck for discussions on the topic of functional diversity and to J. Hulls for providing a map of the study site. A.E.B. was supported by an Australian Government Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency grant. Salary for R.D.S-S. was provided by an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship. Biological monitoring was financially supported in parts by the Australian and Tasmanian governments (Australian Research Council; Natural Heritage Trust; National Resource Management; Fisheries Research and Development Corporation; and Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment) with considerable logistic support from Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service. Temperature, salinity and nutrient data from 2009 to 2012 were sourced from the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS)—IMOS is supported by the Australian government. The CSIRO Coastal Monitoring programme provided oceanographic data before 2008.

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  1. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • Amanda E. Bates
    • , Neville S. Barrett
    • , Rick D. Stuart-Smith
    • , Neil J. Holbrook
    •  & Graham J. Edgar
  2. Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, University of Southampton, Southampton SO14 3ZH, UK

    • Amanda E. Bates
  3. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • Neil J. Holbrook
  4. CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Wealth from Oceans Flagship, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • Peter A. Thompson


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A.E.B., N.S.B., G.J.E. and R.D.S-S. conceived the idea for the manuscript. N.S.B., G.J.E. and others collected the fish data. A.E.B. analysed the data and drafted the manuscript with significant input from N.S.B., G.J.E. and R.D.S-S. N.J.H. and P.A.T. assisted with collating and interpreting the oceanographic data. All authors commented on manuscript drafts.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Amanda E. Bates.

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