Habitat loss and range shifts contribute to ecological generalisation amongst reef fishes

Human activities are altering the structure of ecological communities, often favouring generalists over specialists. For reef fishes, increasingly degraded habitats and climate-driven range shifts may independently augment generalization, particularly if fishes with least-specific habitat requirements are more likely to shift geographic ranges to track their thermal niche. Using a unique global dataset on temperate and tropical reef fishes and habitat composition, we calculated a species generalization index that empirically estimates the habitat niche breadth of each fish species. We then applied the species generalization index to evaluate potential impacts of habitat loss and range shifts across large scales, on coral and rocky reefs. Our analyses revealed consistent habitat-induced shifts in community structure that favoured generalist fishes following regional coral mortality events and between adjacent sea urchin barrens and kelp habitats. Analysis of the distribution of tropical fishes also identified the species generalization index as the most important trait in predicting their poleward range extent, more so than body or range size. Generalist tropical reef fishes penetrate further into subtropical and temperate zones than specialists. Dynamic responses of reef fishes to habitat degradation imply loss of specialists at local scales, while generalists will be broadly favoured under intensifying anthropogenic pressures. An increased focus on individual requirements of specialists could provide useful guidance for species threat assessments and conservation actions, while ecosystem and multi-species fisheries models should recognize increasing prevalence of generalists.

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