Foraging plasticity facilitates persistence of an obligate corallivore butterflyfish on disturbance-prone reefs (#121)
Climate induced mass bleaching causes large scale coral mortality resulting in reefs that are poor and patchy in resources. This severely affects obligate corallivores like butterflyfish that show rapid declines subsequent to bleaching events. Although patterns and mechanisms of declines are relatively well understood, little is known about how resilient obligate corallivores manage to persist on bleached reefs. To explore this, we compared foraging behavior of a resilient obligate corallivore Melon Butterflyfish Chaetodon trifasciatus across three atolls in the Lakshadweep archipelago with similar pre bleaching coral cover and communities that suffered differential bleaching in the wake of 2010 El Nino Southern Oscillations (ENSO). Our results indicated that densities of C. trifasciatus did not show any clear trend with respect to coral cover. However, foraging behavior varied considerably between atolls, with individuals at low-coral cover atolls a) spending more time traveling between resource patches b) compensating for decreased foraging time by increasing intake rate during each foraging bout and c) becoming considerably less selective of the coral genera they eat. This foraging plasticity is likely crucial for the persistence of coral obligates in sub-optimal environments subject to repeated coral declines. Understanding such species-specific responses to bleaching is critical to understanding how species interactions are likely to change, and to be able to predict fish community assembly in the wake of increased frequency of climate disturbances.