Biodiversity Won't Save Our Coral Reefs

A parrot fish. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

A leading Australian coral reef ecologists fears that biodiversity may not provide the level of insurance for ecosystem survival that we once thought.

In an international study published, Professor David Bellwood from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies says we need to identify and protect the most important species within reef ecosystems.

In coral reefs, just as in any modern-day society, there are vital jobs that keep the ecosystem safe and functioning.

In many cases, a single species of fish carries out a unique and essential role, making the ecosystem vulnerable to loss of that species.

Professor Bellwood and a team of international colleagues, led by Professor David Mouillot from the University of Montpellier, examined the jobs of more than 6,000 coral reef fish species across 169 locations worldwide.

“What we often assume is that if we lose one species on a reef, there are many others that can step in and take over their job,” Professor Bellwood says.

But he and his colleagues fear that’s not the case. They believe if a reef ecosystem were to lose a species that carried out a specialist role, the impact could be profound.

“We could easily lose a type of fish that has no substitute, no replacement,” Professor Bellwood says.

“Unfortunately we have become complacent, we have assumed that biodiversity will buy us some time and give us some insurance, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

Professor Bellwood the parrot fish species regularly performs the task of scraping and cleaning inshore coral reefs.

“This parrot fish is a particularly valuable species,” he says, likening this finding to a large city with many inhabitants, but only one doctor.

“To protect ecosystems, we need to ensure that specific jobs are maintained,” Professor Bellwood says. “And that means we must protect the fish that do them.”

The study, “Functional over-redundancy and high functional vulnerability in global fish faunas on tropical reefs”, is published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

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