Habitat degradation increases functional originality in highly diverse coral reef fish assemblages
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As anthropogenic and natural disturbances intensify, there is mounting concern about the loss of functionally important or unique species. Functional redundancy, or the presence of several different species occupying similar functional niches, can provide insurance against diversity loss, but evidence for this effect is rare. Likewise, the ways in which functional redundancy patterns respond to disturbances are poorly known, impeding a thorough understanding of community-level dynamics post disturbance. Here, we use an extensive reduction of hard coral cover following a tropical cyclone to explore the response of a highly diverse reef fish assemblage to habitat degradation. We demonstrate that despite clear trait value-specific susceptibility of fishes to the disturbance, five of six functional indices (including functional richness and evenness) showed no relationship with habitat degradation. In contrast, functional originality, which quantifies the average functional uniqueness of species within an assemblage, increased post disturbance, exhibiting a negative, albeit weak, relationship with decreasing coral cover. The increase in functional originality is simultaneously driven by the loss of functionally similar species in susceptible groups (predominantly small planktivorous and omnivorous species that associate with live coral habitat) and the addition of functionally unique species in groups that benefit from the disturbance (large, non-territorial species feeding on algal turfs, detritus, and invertebrates). Our findings suggest that coral reefs with high coral cover can foster fish assemblages with low functional originality (i.e., high functional redundancy), therefore preventing detectible changes in some of the most commonly applied functional indices post disturbance. However, we caution that the limited resolution of trait-based approaches may mask the loss of functionally unique species and that, with an increase in functional originality, post disturbance assemblages may be less suited to adequately maintain certain ecosystem functions in the face of future disturbances. Thus, there is an urgent need for further exploration of the dynamics between disturbances, functional redundancy, and ecosystem functioning.
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