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Tropical rabbitfish and the deforestation of a warming temperate sea

Vergés, AdrianaTomas, FionaCebrian, EmmaBallesteros, EnricKizilkaya, ZaferDendrinos, PanagiotisKaramanlidis, Alexandros A.Spiegel, DavidSala, EnricTropical rabbitfish and the deforestation of a warming temperate sea. Journal of Ecology 102 : 1518-1527 (2014) DIGITAL.CSIC

1. A striking example of climate-mediated range shifts in marine systems is the intrusion of tropical species into temperate areas world-wide, but we know very little about the ecological consequences of these range expansions. 2. In the Mediterranean Sea, the range expansion of tropical rabbitfishes that first entered the basin via the Suez Canal provides a good example of how tropical herbivorous fish can impact the structure of rocky bottoms in temperate seas. Two species of rabbitfishes have now become a dominant component of total fish biomass in the southernmost part of the eastern Mediterranean. Experimental evidence shows these species can profoundly transform benthic communities, turning algal forests into ‘barrens’, but the specific mechanisms that facilitate this shift have not been established. 3. We surveyed ~1000 km of coastline in the eastern Mediterranean and identified two clearly distinct areas, a warmer group of regions with abundant tropical rabbitfish and a colder group of regions where these consumers were absent/ extremely rare. In regions with abundant rabbitfish, canopy algae were 65% less abundant, and there was a 60% reduction of overall benthic biomass (algae and invertebrates) and a 40% decrease in total species richness. 4. Video-recorded feeding experiments showed that the extensive barrens characteristic of regions with abundant rabbitfish were not due to greater rates of herbivory by these tropical consumers, but rather by functional differences among the herbivores. Temperate herbivorous fish displayed the greatest macroalgae consumption rates overall, but they fed exclusively on established adult macroalgae. In contrast, in regions with abundant rabbitfishes, these consumers fed complementarily on both established macroalgae and on the epilithic algal matrix, which typically contains macroalgal recruits. 5. Synthesis. Range-shifting tropical rabbitfish can severely reduce the biomass and biodiversity of temperate reefs at a scale of hundreds of kilometres. A shift from macroalgal dominance to barrens is mediated by the addition of functionally diverse herbivores that characterize tropical reefs. This work highlights the importance of assessing the functional traits of range-shifting species to determine potential mechanisms of impact on ecological communities.