The Role of Herbivorous Fishes and Urchins in Coral Reef Communities

Document Type


Publication Date



algae, behavior, co-evolution, communities, ecology, feeding selectivity, fish morphology, herbivore, predatorprey, seagrass

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)



Herbivorous fishes and invertebrates are conspicious elements of coral reef communities where they predominate both in numbers and biomass. Herbivores and the coral reef algae on which they feed represent a co-evolved system of defense and counter-defense. Algal species have developed toxic, structural, spatial and temporal defense or escape mechanisms, while the herbivores employ strategies that involve anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations. Current research demonstrates that many reef fishes are highly selective in the algae they consume. Food selection in these fishes may be correlated with their morphological and digestive capabilities to rupture algal cell walls. Sea urchins select more in accordance with relative abundance, although certain algal species are clearly avoided. The determinants of community structure on coral reefs have yet to be established but evidence indicates a strong influence by herbivores. Reef herbivores may reduce the abundance of certain competitively superior algae, thus allowing corals and cementing coralline algae to survive. We discuss how the foraging activities of tropical marine herbivores affect the distribution and abundance of algae and how these activities contribute to the development of coral reef structure and the fish assemblages which are intimately associated with reef structure.

Was this content written or created while at USF?


Citation / Publisher Attribution

Environmental Biology of Fishes, v. 3, issue 1, p. 49-63