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While environmental filters are well-known factors influencing community assembly, the extent to which these modify species functions, and entire ecosystem processes, is poorly understood.
Focusing on a high-diversity system, we ask whether environmental filtering has ecosystem-wide effects beyond community assembly. We characterise a coral reef herbivorous fish community for swimming performance based on ten functional traits derived from fish morphology. We then investigate whether wave exposure modifies the functional make-up of herbivory, and the absolute and relative feeding frequency of distinct feeding functional groups.
Herbivorous fish species conformed to either laterally compressed or fusiform body plans, which differ in their morphological design to minimise drag. High wave exposure selectively limited the feeding function of the deepest body shapes with highest caudal thrust efficiency, and favoured fusiform bodies irrespective of pectoral fin shape.
Traditionally recognised herbivore feeding functional groups (i.e. grazers–detritivores and scrapers–small excavators) differed in swimming performance, and in their capacity to feed consistently across levels of wave exposure. We therefore emphasise the distinctness of their ecological niche and functional complementarity.
Species within the same feeding functional group also had contrasting responses to wave exposure. We thereby reveal a further ecological dimension of niche partitioning, and reiterate the risk of assuming functional redundancy among species with a common feeding mode.
Contrasting responses of species within feeding functional roles (i.e. response diversity) allowed the preservation of critical trophic functions throughout the gradient (e.g. macroalgal browsing), and likely explained why overall levels of herbivory were robust to filtering. Whether ecosystem functioning will remain robust under the additive effects of environmental stress and human-induced disturbances remains to be tested.