Reef fish functional traits evolve fastest at trophic extremes


Trophic ecology is thought to exert a profound influence on biodiversity, but the specifics of the process are rarely examined at large spatial and evolutionary scales. We investigate how trophic position and diet breadth influence functional trait evolution in one of the most species-rich and complex vertebrate assemblages, coral reef fishes, within a large-scale phylogenetic framework. We show that, in contrast with established theory, functional traits evolve fastest in trophic specialists with narrow diet breadths at both very low and high trophic positions. Top trophic level specialists exhibit the most functional diversity, while omnivorous taxa with intermediate trophic positions and wide diet breadth have the least functional diversity. Our results reveal the importance of trophic position in shaping evolutionary dynamics while simultaneously highlighting the incredible trophic and functional diversity present in coral reef fish assemblages.

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Fig. 1: Stochastic character mapping reveals over 600 trophic level transitions across the phylogeny of 1,545 acanthomorph reef taxa.
Fig. 2: Morphospace by trophic level of 1,545 reef acanthomorphs based on 8 phenotypic functional traits.
Fig. 3: Violin plots of diet breadth and phenotypic functional diversity at each trophic level.
Fig. 4: Summary of multiple pair-wise comparisons for rates of morphological evolution, functional diversity and diet breadth among trophic levels.

Data availability

Data and scripts used in this study are stored in the Dryad Digital Repository (, which is open access.


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We thank B. Matthews for comments on the manuscript. Research was supported by NSF DEB-1701913 to S.R.B. and B.C.O., NSF DEB-1556953 to P.C.W., and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee (S.R.B.).

Author information




S.R.B. and M.D.M. designed the study. S.R.B. and J.A.F. performed the analyses. S.R.B., J.A.F. and M.D.M. wrote the manuscript with substantial comments from B.C.O. and P.C.W.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samuel R. Borstein.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Results, Tables 5–20 and Figures 1–6

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data

Time-calibrated phylogeny of 1,545 acanthomorph fish used to perform phylogenetic comparative analyses

Supplementary Table 1

Species standard, fork and total lengths; scale in pixels; photo author; photo source; calculated trophic level and trophic grouping. See Supplementary Information for citations of image sources in the source column

Supplementary Table 2

GenBank accessions for 15 genes used in phylogenetic reconstruction

Supplementary Table 3

Digitized landmark coordinates for 1,545 species of reef acanthomorphs

Supplementary Table 4

Number of species per trophic level by family for 92 families of reef acanthomorphs

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Borstein, S.R., Fordyce, J.A., O’Meara, B.C. et al. Reef fish functional traits evolve fastest at trophic extremes. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 191–199 (2019).

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