The Ecology of Herbivorous Fishes in the Red Sea

  • Matthew Tietbohl

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Herbivorous fishes include a diverse assemblage of species that target primarily benthic autotrophs. This is perhaps one of the most well-studied groups of coral reef fishes, often reputed to be key components of coral reef communities, contributing to coral reef health in numerous ways. Through their feeding ecology and benthic interactions, they help mediate algae-coral interactions which can allow for improved coral survival and health. Despite the wealth of literature documenting the prominent roles of these fishes in coral reef ecosystems, studies from the Red Sea are surprisingly lacking. The Red Sea is a marginal reef environment, with a host of unique environmental and biological characteristics making it a unique environment where dynamics of herbivory may differ. This dissertation aims to fill key gaps in our knowledge of herbivorous fishes through the study of their distribution and trophic ecology. Herein, I describe habitat-specific partitioning of Red Sea herbivorous fish assemblages, discovering higher diversity and abundance found in reefs closer to shower, dissimilar to findings from other regions. Cross-shelf variation in assemblage structure seems to be quite robust through time, indicating short-term stability in herbivore assemblages. Through the use of stomach contents and stable isotope analyses, I then investigate the trophic ecology of browsing herbivores across the same shelf-gradient. I found higher trophic redundancy on nearshore reefs through time, with increased variation in diet and high levels of complementarity on offshore reefs where macroalgae are scarce. Stable isotope analyses of both liver and muscle revealed the stability of this resource partitioning through time, demonstrating for the first-time temporal stability of resource partitioning within this group. This dissertation broadens our knowledge of herbivorous fishes, filling important gaps. It offers new insight into the role of habitat in structuring trophic ecology and how flexible the diets of browsing species can be. Together, this information creates a foundation where improved knowledge of herbivorous fish ecology could be incorporated into future management plans of ongoing giga projects within the Kingdom. Incorporating herbivores into these plans could allow for increased resiliency for Red Sea coral reefs in the face of future development and shifting climatology.
Date of AwardNov 2022
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorMichael Berumen (Supervisor)


  • herbivore
  • fish
  • Red Sea
  • coral reef
  • UVC
  • stomach content analyses
  • stable isotope analyses
  • trophic redundancy

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