Unexpected high vulnerability of functions in wilderness areas: evidence from coral reef fishes

D'agata et al. (2016) Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 283:1844.

High species richness is thought to support the delivery of multiple ecosystem functions and services under changing environments. Yet, some species might performunique functional roles while others are redundant. Thus, the benefits of high species richness in maintaining ecosystem functioning are uncertain if functions have little redundancy, potentially leading to high vulnerability of functions.We studied the natural propensity of assemblages to be functionally buffered against loss prior to fishing activities, using functional trait combinations, in coral reef fish assemblages across unfished wilderness areas of the Indo-Pacific: Chagos Archipelago, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Fish functional diversity in these wilderness areas is highly vulnerable to fishing, explained by species- and abundance-based redundancy packed into a small combination of traits, leaving most other trait combinations (60%) sensitive to fishing, with no redundancy. Functional vulnerability peaks for mobile and sedentary top predators, and large species in general. Functional vulnerability decreases for certain functional entities in New Caledonia, where overall functional redundancy was higher. Uncovering these baseline patterns of functional vulnerability can offer early warning signals of the damaging effects from fishing, and may serve as baselines to guide precautionary and even proactive conservation actions.