Range-extending tropical herbivores increase diversity, intensity and extent of herbivory functions in temperate marine ecosystems

Salvador Zarco-Perello, Gemma Carroll, Mat Vanderklift, Thomas Holmes, Tim J. Langlois, Thomas Wernberg

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Climate change is modifying species distributions around the world, forcing some species poleward, where they can alter trophic interactions. Many tropical herbivorous fishes have successfully expanded their ranges into temperate ecosystems, and while it is clear they drive increases in herbivory rates in specific localities, little is known about how they might affect the diversity of herbivory functions across large spatial scales, considering their interaction with assemblages of native herbivores in temperate habitats. We assessed the spatial overlap and habitat associations of native temperate and range-expanding tropical herbivorous fishes in six subregions of south-western Australia to determine how incursions of tropical species may have affected the diversity, redundancy (index of uniqueness) and the ‘spatial extent’ (addition of functions in new areas) and ‘intensity’ (increasing density of functional groups) of specific herbivory functions in recipient ecosystems. Tropical herbivores had high abundances in temperate ecosystems, forming schools from 40 (parrotfish) to 200 (rabbitfish) individuals strongly associated with seagrass meadows and reefs with high cover of turf algae. Overlap with temperate herbivores was highest in the northern subregions, forming unique assemblages, with no apparent species displacements. The addition of tropical species increased functional diversity and uniqueness (the complement of redundancy), introducing novel herbivory functions to many locations. Seagrass browsing increased in spatial extent (27%) and intensity (15×), while seaweed browsing and grazing increased in intensity by up to 2.5× in regions with high abundances of tropical herbivores. Our results suggest that the diversity, intensity and spatial extent of different herbivory functions can change as tropical species with different habitat affinities, behaviours and diets shift their distributions poleward. Changes in functional redundancy are likely to be heterogeneous in space and might not increase initially because the diversity of herbivory functions is relatively low in some temperate marine ecosystems. However, there is the potential for greater redundancy as further tropical species arrive, their abundances increase and the spatial and functional overlap of communities rises. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2411-2421
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2020


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