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Ocean warming is driving species poleward, causing a 'tropicalization' of temperate ecosystems around the world. Increasing abundances of tropical herbivores on temperate reefs could accelerate declines in habitat-forming seaweeds with devastating consequences for these important marine ecosystems. Here we document an expansion of rabbitfish (Siganus fuscescens), a tropical herbivore, on temperate reefs in Western Australia following a marine heatwave and demonstrate their impact on local kelp forests (Ecklonia radiata). Before the heatwave there were no rabbitfish and low rates of kelp herbivory but after the heatwave rabbitfish were common at most reefs and consumption of kelp was high. Herbivory increased 30-fold and kelp abundance decreased by 70% at reefs where rabbitfish had established. In contrast, where rabbitfish were absent, kelp abundance and herbivory did not change. Video-analysis confirmed that rabbitfish were the main consumers of kelp, followed by silver drummers (Kyphosus sydneyanus), a temperate herbivore. These results represent a likely indirect effect of the heatwave beyond its acute impacts, and they provide evidence that range-shifting tropical herbivores can contribute to declines in habitat-forming seaweeds within a few years of their establishment.
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