Together with the variation reflected in their anatomy, behavior, as well as ecology, the local abundance and global biodiversity of coral reef fish offer interesting and varied opportunities for biological research.
Coral reefs are among the most active habitats, providing a wide variety of ecosystem services that are important to local human communities, such as hunting, shoreline safety, and leisure opportunities.
Coral reef fishes are made up of fish that move between or near to coral reefs. With enormous biodiversity, coral reefs shape diverse habitats. The reef fish stands out from others as colorful and fascinating to watch among the multiple inhabitants. In a small region of a healthy reef, there may be hundreds of varieties, most concealed or very well camouflaged. Coral fish have evolved various ingenious specializations optimized to reef survival.
Coral reefs cover fewer than 1% of the world's ocean surface but still provide habitat to 25% of all fish species. Reef habitats differ considerably when compared to open marine habitats that constitute the remaining 99 percent of the oceans in the world. However, destruction of coral reef habitat and degradation, increased pollution, overfishing, and the implementation of dangerous fishing practices, threaten the continued existence of the reefs and the coral fish.
Many reef fish possess different body shapes from open-water fish. In the open sea, the fishes are typically created for speed, structured like torpedoes to reduce friction while moving through the ocean. Reef fish usually operate in the fairly enclosed spaces and complicated underwater coral reef landscapes. Because of this, maneuverability is far more critical than smooth-line speed, therefore coral fish have evolved bodies that maximize their darting and directional shift ability. Through diving through reef fissures or playing a cover, they outsmart predators and hunt for coral faces.
Some reef fish, like those of butterflyfish or angelfishes, have formed bodies which are vertically compact as a pancake and deep. Their fins (pectoral and pelvic) are structured differently, to maximize maneuverability they work along with the streamlined body.
Coral fishes show a vast array of spectacular and sometimes strange color combinations. This contrasts markedly with other fishes that are typically counter-shaded mostly with silver colors.
There are different functions for the patterns. Sometimes if the fish stays in areas with the right background, they help in serving as camouflage. During reproduction, coloring can also be used to aid species identification. To alert predators that it has venomous fangs or toxic tissue, certain distinctive contrasting colors are used.
An example of a commensalism relationship exists between hawkfish and the fire coral. Hawkfish can perch on top of fire corals and not be harmed, due to their skinless, huge, pectoral fins. Fire corals are not actual corals, but hydrozoans with venomous cells called nematocysts that usually prohibit close contact. The security enjoyed by the hawkfish from the fire corals ensures that the hawkfish usually has the reef's higher ground and can easily observe the environment the same as a hawk. Hawkfish usually remain motionless, but when they move, they dive out and catch crustaceans and other tiny invertebrates. Although some other species establish pairs and share a coral head, they are almost always solitary.
Many fish in the coral reefs are toxic. Toxic fish are those which contain poisonous substances within their bodies. The coral reef stonefish is by far the most toxic known fish. It has an outstanding ability to disguise itself against the rocks. It is a predator that sits at the bottom while waiting for its prey to come near. When frightened, it wouldn't swim away, it rather sets up 13 toxic spines along its tail. It can fire venom from either or all of its spines for defense. Each spine is built like a needle that delivers venom from two sacs that are attached to it. The stonefish is in charge of firing their venom and do so when they are agitated or afraid.
The coral reef fish is one of the most brightly colored and diversified species of fishes in the sea. Their wide range of vibrant colors and their bold patterns in the whole undersea is practically unrivaled. And although they are utterly beautiful, behind any of these designs there is an actual function. Red shades tend to be dark underwater, which allows them to swim unseen. Stripes enable a fish to disguise itself among the corals. Patterns with spots are used to confuse a predator's wishful thinking.
Coral reef fish are usually subject to constant predation, especially by piscivores (also called mesopredators) at the mid-trophic level attacking recruits. Thus, reef fish display a wide range of anatomical features and traits associated with capture and escape.
Many species of reef fish have developed better feeding techniques, characterized by sophisticated mouths, jaws, as well as teeth that are particularly suitable for dealing with their primary sources of food mainly found in coral ecosystems. Many species even change their dietary patterns as they reach maturity. This is not unexpected given the enormous number of prey types available around the coral reefs.
For example, coral polyps or the body parts of polychaetes, as well as other tiny invertebrate animals, are the main source of food for butterfly fishes. Protruding like forceps, their mouths are fitted with perfect teeth that enable them to remove portions of their prey. Parrotfish feed on algae that grow along reef surfaces, using well-adapted mouths such as beaks to consume their food. Other fish, such as snapper, are generalized consumers with more conventional jaws and fine mouth structures that enable them to consume a wide species of animal prey, including tiny fish and other invertebrates.
Reef fish have established complex behaviors of adaptation. Small reef fish are protected by hiding in coral crevices or shoaling or schooling from predators. Most coral fish are confined to small areas where hiding spots are identified and can be reached instantly. Others are usually found cruising the reefs in shoals for food, but return to a defined area for cover when inactive. Many other species including triggerfish, crawl into tight hiding spots and insert themselves by pointing their spines upwards, but are still susceptible to crevice predators.
The yellow tang is a herbivore that consumes benthic algae, an example of the adaptations of the reef fish. They also provide marine turtles with cleaner services by erasing algae growing on their shells. They would not accept other fish having the same shape or color. The normally placid yellow tang, when frightened, will erect spines in his tail and stab his adversary with quick sideways motions.
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