Microhabitat change alters abundances of competing species and decreases species richness under ocean acidification


• Niche segregation allows species to co-exist and maintain diversity.
• Ocean acidification could modify niche availability and niche segregation.
• Natural CO2 vents showed altered microhabitat availability and fish abundances.
• Competitively dominant fishes increased in density but others decreased.
• Fish species diversity decreases due to niche alteration under elevated CO2.


Niche segregation allows competing species to capture resources in contrasting ways so they can co-exist and maintain diversity, yet global change is simplifying ecosystems and associated niche diversity. Whether climate perturbations alter niche occupancy among co-occurring species and affect species diversity is a key, but unanswered question. Using CO2 vents as natural analogues of ocean acidification, we show that competing fish species with overlapping diets are partially segregated across microhabitat niches and differently-orientated substrata under ambient CO2 conditions. Under elevated CO2, benthic microhabitats experienced a significant increase in non-calcifying turf and fleshy algae but a sharp reduction in calcareous algae. The increased availability of turf and fleshy algae supported increased densities of a competitively dominant species, whilst the reduction in calcifying algal microhabitats decreased densities of several subordinate species. The change in microhabitat availability also drove an increased overlap in microhabitat use among competing fishes at the vents, associated with a reduced fish species richness on horizontal substrates. We conclude that loss of preferred microhabitat niches, exacerbated by population proliferation of competitively dominant species, can drive population losses of less common and subordinate species, and reduce local species richness. The indirect effects of ocean acidification on microhabitat availability can therefore impair maintenance of species populations, and drive changes in local community and biodiversity patterns.


Nagelkerken I., Goldenberg S. U., Coni E. O. C. & Connell S. D., 2018. Microhabitat change alters abundances of competing species and decreases species richness under ocean acidification. Science of The Total Environment 645: 615-622. Article (subscription required).

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