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Biological trade-offs underpin coral reef ecosystem functioning


Human impact increasingly alters global ecosystems, often reducing biodiversity and disrupting the provision of essential ecosystem services to humanity. Therefore, preserving ecosystem functioning is a critical challenge of the twenty-first century. Coral reefs are declining worldwide due to the pervasive effects of climate change and intensive fishing, and although research on coral reef ecosystem functioning has gained momentum, most studies rely on simplified proxies, such as fish biomass. This lack of quantitative assessments of multiple process-based ecosystem functions hinders local and regional conservation efforts. Here we combine global coral reef fish community surveys and bioenergetic models to quantify five key ecosystem functions mediated by coral reef fishes. We show that functions exhibit critical trade-offs driven by varying community structures, such that no community can maximize all functions. Furthermore, functions are locally dominated by few species, but the identity of dominant species substantially varies at the global scale. In fact, half of the 1,110 species in our dataset are functionally dominant in at least one location. Our results reinforce the need for a nuanced, locally tailored approach to coral reef conservation that considers multiple ecological functions beyond the effect of standing stock biomass.

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Fig. 1: Maps of the five key ecosystem functions, multifunctionality and the relationships between the functions and biomass.
Fig. 2: Correlations of the five functions, accounting for biomass and SST.
Fig. 3: Effects of ecological community variables on the five functions.
Fig. 4: Local dominance in species contributions to five ecosystem functions on coral reefs.

Data availability

All data needed to reproduce the figures are available on GitHub ( and figshare ( All empirical data that were used to estimate parameters for bioenergetic modelling (Supplementary Information) will be available on figshare ( after a two-year embargo.

Code availability

All code to reproduce the figures are available on GitHub ( and figshare (


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We thank the staff at CRIOBE, Moorea for field support. We also thank J. Carlot, S. Degregori, B. French, T. Roncin, Y. Lacube, C. Gache, G. Martineau, K. Bissell, B. Espiau, C. Quigley, K. Landfield and T. Norin for their help in the field, G. de Sinéty and J. Wicquart for their contribution to otolith analysis, and S. Schiettekatte for proofreading the manuscript. This research was funded by the BNP Paribas Foundation (Reef Services Project) and the French National Agency for Scientific Research (ANR, REEFLUX Project, ANR‐17‐CE32‐0006). This research is the product of the SCORE-REEF group funded by the Centre de Synthèse et d’Analyse sur la Biodiversité of the Foundation pour la Recherche sur la Biodiversité and the Office Francais de la Biodiversité. V.P. was supported by the Institut Universitaire de France, and J.M.C. was supported by a Make Our Planet Great Again Postdoctoral Grant (mopga‐pdf‐0000000144).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



N.M.D.S. and V.P. conceived the idea. N.M.D.S., V.P., S.J.B., J.M.C. and S.V. designed the methodology. N.M.D.S., J.M.C., S.J.B., A.M., F.M., V.P., K.S.M., J.E.A. and D.E.B. collected the data. N.A.J.G., D.R.B., D.E.B., J.E.A., J.E.A.-G., G.J.E., C.E.L.F., S.R.F., A.M.F., A.L.G., M.K., Y.L., O.J.L., F.M., E.L.R., F.A.R.-Z., R.D.S.-S. and L.V. shared existing data. N.M.D.S. analysed the data and led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed significantly to the drafts and approved the final version for publication.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nina M. D. Schiettekatte.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer Review File

Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Matthew McLean, Marc Hensel and Gareth Williams for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Correlations among functions.

Correlations, independent of biomass and sea surface temperature, at the locality and site levels. Dotes and lines indicate the mean estimated values and 95% credible intervals, respectively.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Posterior predictive checks of multivariate models.

a-e: Intercept-only model, f-j: model with biomass and sea surface temperature, k-o: model with all community variables.

Supplementary information

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Schiettekatte, N.M.D., Brandl, S.J., Casey, J.M. et al. Biological trade-offs underpin coral reef ecosystem functioning. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 701–708 (2022).

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