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Oil exposure disrupts early life-history stages of coral reef fishes via behavioural impairments

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 1pages11461152 (2017) | Download Citation


Global demand for energy and oil-based products is progressively introducing petrogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) into sensitive marine environments, primarily from fossil-fuel exploration, transport, and urban and industrial runoff. These toxic pollutants are found worldwide, yet the long-term ecological effects on coral reef ecosystems are unknown. Here, we demonstrate that oil exposure spanning PAH concentrations that are environmentally relevant for many coastal marine ecosystems (≤5.7 μg l−1), including parts of the Great Barrier Reef, Red Sea, Asia and the Caribbean, causes elevated mortality and stunted growth rates in six species of pre-settlement coral reef fishes, spanning two evolutionarily distinct families (Pomacentridae and Lethrinidae). Furthermore, oil exposure alters habitat settlement and antipredator behaviours, causing reduced sheltering, shoaling and increased risk taking, all of which exacerbate predator-induced mortality during recruitment. These results suggest a previously unknown path, whereby oil and PAH exposure impair higher-order cognitive processing and behaviours necessary for the successful settlement and survival of larval fishes. This emphasizes the risks associated with industrial activities within at-risk ecosystems.

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Corrected online: Publisher correction 2 August 2017

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Change history

  • 02 August 2017

    In the version of this Article originally published, a statistic relating to the northern Great Barrier Reef was attributed to the Great Barrier Reef as a whole. The sentence should have read ‘In 2016 alone, more than 35% of corals on the northern Great Barrier Reef are estimated to have died following the worst bleaching event ever recorded’. This has been corrected in all versions of the Article.


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The authors thank the staff from the Lizard Island Research Station and R. Ern for logistical support and P. van der Sleen for illustration assistance. This research was made possible by a grant from the Lizard Island Research Foundation and The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GMRI).

Author information


  1. Department of Marine Science, University of Texas, Marine Science Institute, Port Aransas, TX, 78373, USA

    • Jacob L. Johansen
    •  & Andrew J. Esbaugh
  2. Pelagic Fish Group, Institute of Marine Research, Bergen, 5005, Norway

    • Bridie J. M. Allan
  3. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD, 4811, Australia

    • Jodie L. Rummer


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J.L.J. and A.J.E. conceived the idea. J.L.J. designed the experiments. J.L.J., B.J.M.A. and J.L.R. performed the experiments. J.L.J. and B.J.M.A. analysed the data. J.L.J. wrote the manuscript with input from B.J.M.A., J.L.R. and A.J.E.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jacob L. Johansen.

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  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–4, Supplementary Table 1

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