A recent research publication out of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography examined the role of reef fishes in keeping corals healthy by ridding them of algae.
It is widely known within the marine science community that certain species of herbivorous reef fish eat macroalgae, or seaweed, covering corals. This helps coral survival, as corals and seaweeds compete for space and sunlight on the reef. Without seaweed-eating fish, the reefs decline as corals are replaced by seaweeds.
The study from the team at Scripps aimed to record feeding behaviors and the unique grazing roles of different reef-dwelling macroalgae eaters. The team examined feeding behaviors of 15 common species of algae-eating reef fish on a coral reef in Hawaii. At the end of the four-year study period, it was concluded that individual species selectively graze on different types of algae. These selective eaters also eat the preferred algae species in different ways, which lead the team to the conclusion that each fish species has a different function in grazing.
A diverse herbivorous community is beneficial for maintaining the health and composition of a reef. Read more about the "lawnmowers of the sea" and what these results mean for understanding feeding behavior and coral reef health.
Kelly, E.L.A., Y. Eynaud, S.M. Clements, M. Gleason, R.T. Sparks, I.D. Williams, J.E. Smith. 2016. Investigating functional redundancy versus complementarity in Hawaiian herbivorous coral reef fishes. Oecologia, 182:4(1151-1163). DOI: 10.1007/s00442-016-3724-0.