TitlePopulation dynamics of coral-reef fishes: Controversial concepts and hypotheses
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsHixon, MA
JournalAustralian Journal of Ecology
Type of ArticleJournal Article

Knowledge of processes that drive the local population dynamics of coral-reef fishes is important for managing reef fisheries, and for using these species as models for understanding the ecology of demersal marine fishes in general. However, the reef-fish literature is replete with poorly defined concepts and vague hypotheses regarding the issue of population dynamics. Dichotomous arguments, such as whether or not recruitment drives population dynamics, are misdirected because they fail to incorporate several important concepts. First, changes in local population size are driven by four demographic rates (birth, death, immigration and emigration), all of which must be studied to understand population dynamics. Second, all populations that persist do so because at least one of these demographic rates operates in a density-dependent way that is both sufficiently strong and appropriately time-lagged. Therefore, identifying the source(s) of direct density dependence is critical for understanding the limits to variation in population size (i.e. population regulation). Third, regulation does not imply a simple point equilibrium in population size; density dependence in populations of reef fishes is bound to lie within a held of stochastic variation, and thus be difficult to detect. Since its formal origin in 1981, the 'recruitment limitation' hypothesis for explaining local population dynamics in reef fishes has undergone ambiguous changes in definition that threaten its usefulness. 'Recruitment,' originally defined as the appearance of newly settled fish on a reef, more recently is often measured months after settlement, thus confounding pre-and post-settlement processes. 'Limitation,' which originally referred to recruitment being so low as to preclude local populations from reaching densities where resources were limiting, is more recently defined as an absence of any form of density dependence after settlement. The most effective means of testing whether post-settlement mortality is in fact density-independent is to examine patterns of mortality directly, rather than indirectly by interpreting the shape of the relationship between initial recruit density and subsequent adult density within a cohort (the recruit-adult function). Understanding the population dynamics of coral-reef fishes will require a more equitable focus on all four demographic rates, be they density dependent or not, as well as greater attention to identifying sources of density dependence. Such a pluralistic focus necessitates integrated studies of both pre-and post-settlement processes conducted at multiple spatial and temporal scales. For example, recent evidence suggests that density-dependent predation on new recruits that have settled among reefs at different densities may prove to be an important source of local population regulation, especially via the aggregative response of transient piscivores.

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