Tracking Widespread Climate-driven Change on Temperate and Tropical Reefs


Warming seas, marine heatwaves, and habitat degradation are increasingly widespread phenomena affecting marine biodiversity, yet our understanding of their broader impacts is largely derived from collective insights from independent localized studies. Insufficient systematic broadscale monitoring limits our understanding of the true extent of these impacts and our capacity to track these at scales relevant to national policies and international agreements. Using an extensive time series of co-located reef fish community structure and habitat data spanning 12 years and the entire Australian continent, we found that reef fish community responses to changing temperatures and habitats are dynamic and widespread but regionally patchy. Shifts in composition and abundance of the fish community often occurred within 2 years of environmental or habitat change, although the relative importance of these two mechanisms of climate impact tended to differ between tropical and temperate zones. The clearest of these changes on temperate and subtropical reefs were temperature related, with responses measured by the reef fish thermal index indicating reshuffling according to the thermal affinities of species present. On low latitude coral reefs, the community generalization index indicated shifting dominance of habitat generalist fishes through time, concurrent with changing coral cover. Our results emphasize the importance of maintaining local ecological detail when scaling up datasets to inform national policies and global biodiversity targets. Scaled-up ecological monitoring is needed to discriminate among increasingly diverse drivers of large-scale biodiversity change and better connect presently disjointed systems of biodiversity observation, indicator research, and governance.

Publication type

Journal Article


Stuart-Smith, RD., et al.




Current Biology






Subscribe to the RLS Newsletter to stay up to date on the latest RLS news, field activities & research.
Subscribe to Newsletter
Supported by The Ian Potter Foundation
The Minderoo Foundation
Website Design by Forte Web Design
website design by Forte Web Design
downloadlink linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram