'Twilight zone' fish swim silently with forked tails

January 19, 2016, ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies
Tail shape can help predict if a fish will be found at a greater range of depths. Credit: Tom Bridge

An international team of researchers has identified a way to predict which reef fish can live across a greater range of depths, increasing their chances of surviving natural disasters such as cyclones and coral bleaching.

Study lead author, Dr Tom Bridge from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, says the research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that tail shape can help predict if a fish is likely to exist across a range of water depths.

"We found that the 'caudal fin aspect ratio', which measures the shape of the fishes tail, is the best predictor of which fish can live in a range of deep and shallow reefs." Dr Bridge says.

"In other words, fishes with more forked tails are significantly more likely to be found in both shallow and deep habitats than species with more rounded tails."

Dr Bridge says it's not known exactly why this is the case, though it's suspected that the forked tail allows fish to swim more 'silently'.

"The capacity for 'stealth swimming' is particularly important in deeper habitats, where light irradiance and wave energy are low and species rely on sensing changes in water pressure to capture prey and avoid predators."

Coral reefs are typically thought to occur in shallow, sun-lit waters, but new technology is revealing that reefs in the ocean's 'twilight zone', 50-150 m deep, support diverse and unique communities

Reef fish are swimming in "twilight zone" deep reefs. Credit: Tom Bridge

However conditions on these deep reefs can be challenging for coral reef fishes, with low light, high pressure, and low temperatures.

Study co-author Dr Osmar Luiz from Macquarie University says species that can survive in the twilight zone may be less susceptible to population declines and extinction.

"Identifying which species can occur over a broad depth range is important for understanding which are more vulnerable to local population declines and extinction, particularly from disturbances such as cyclones and events."

The researchers say the next step is to understand exactly what it is about the forked tails that provides fishes such an advantage in deeper water.

Explore further: Tough times for the tree of life on coral reefs

More information: Ecological and morphological traits predict depth-generalist fishes on coral reefs by Tom C. L. Bridge, Osmar J. Luiz, Richard R. Coleman, Corinne N. Kane and Randall K. Kosaki is published in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.2332

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