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Abstract Aim We examined comparative data for cryptobenthic reef fishes to determine how variation in regional species richness relates to local species richness, abundance, and taxonomic and trophic composition, and to test whether systems with higher species richness exhibit finer habitat partitioning. Locations Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef (GBR), Australia; Bahía de Loreto, Gulf of California (GoC), Mexico. Methods Cryptobenthic reef fish assemblages from four habitats (coral heads, rubble, and horizontal and vertical surfaces of boulders) were collected using clove oil. Differences in density, species richness and biomass were examined between regions and among habitats. Habitat associations were identified for each habitat/location based on multivariate ordination, and the statistical significance of patterns was tested using analysis of similarity (ANOSIM). In addition, the trophic group composition of the assemblages for both regions was examined. Results A total of 91 species in 20 families were recorded (GBR, 66 species; GoC, 25 species). Total and habitat species richness were higher on the GBR, whereas biomass was higher in the GoC. No difference in fish density between regions was found. Habitat division among assemblages was greater in the depauperate GoC. Only coral head associations proved to be distinctive on the GBR, whereas three sample groups were found in the GoC (coral heads, horizontal boulders and vertical boulders/rubble). Trophic composition in the two regions was markedly different, with omnivores dominating the GBR fauna and planktivores the GoC. Main conclusions A positive regional–local relationship in fish diversity was found between regions, but fish abundance in both regions remained similar. Contrary to expectations, habitat partitioning, at a community level, was greater in the depauperate GoC. Differences in trophic composition and patterns of habitat use appear to reflect the disparate history of the regions, whereas patterns of abundance may reflect the influence of fundamental relationships between size and abundance in communities. This study highlights the potential of reef faunas to conform to universal numerical trends while maintaining an ability to respond ecologically to local/evolutionary influences. The GoC fauna appears to be exceptionally vulnerable to natural and anthropogenic disturbance owing to the high numerical dominance of habitat-specific species and to the limited potential for functional redundancy within the system.