Reproductive Ecology, Condition, and the Physical Environment of a Temperate Protogynous Hermaphrodite at a Small Scale
Hermaphroditic reef fish display remarkable diversity in mating strategies, social structure, and the timing of sex change. Understanding spatial variation in reproductive ecology and physiological condition is important in the design of marine reserve systems and fisheries management for species that change sex. I investigated patterns in reproductive ecology, condition, and the influence of the underlying physical environment, for a temperate protogynous (female first) hermaphrodite, the spotty (Notolabrus celidotus) at a small spatial scale. First, I used SCUBA surveys to visually estimate density, sex ratio, and size-frequency to describe the social structure of two populations of spotties located at either end of a 9 km gradient in swell exposure. I then collected individuals from both locations to estimate growth, mortality, and the timing of maturation and sex change for each population. To estimate and compare physiological stress and condition of individuals sampled from these two locations, I used otoliths to quantify fluctuating asymmetry (a measure of stress) and I compared this to other commonly used condition indices. Lastly, I estimated spatial variation in social structure and a set of environmental variables at 30 sites along a gradient of swell exposure to investigate correlations between the physical environment and the density, sex ratio, and size-frequency of spotties. The results revealed that social structure differed markedly between two populations but not always as expected. A low ratio of males to females in sheltered Kau Bay suggested that the rate of sex change was constrained for this population (relative to Wahine Park, a more swell-exposed site, where males were more abundant in the population). Individuals from Kau Bay exhibited slower growth and higher mortality estimates, and in line with predictions of the size advantage model, females appeared to change sex at an early age and smaller size relative to Wahine Park. Contrary to expectations, however, low levels of fluctuating asymmetry suggested the population at Kau Bay was less stressed than Wahine Park, despite evidence for reduced physiological condition (Fulton’s condition factor K) and high density at Kau Bay. Differences in fluctuating asymmetry between sexes and size classes suggested that sex-specific fluctuating asymmetry and stressors later in the life history are important in these populations. Furthermore, correlations between social structure and the physical environment were inconclusive and highlight the necessity for large sampling efforts. Overall, this study concludes that availability of spawning-territory may limit the rate of sex change and influence reproductive potential in this species. This process may be applicable to other protogynous species that rely on territory-defense as a mating strategy. Sex-specific expression of fluctuating asymmetry should be considered in hermaphroditic reef fish and the impact of stressors acting on specific stages in the life history of individuals requires further investigation. Furthermore, my results suggest that condition indices and fluctuating asymmetry cannot be used interchangeably to estimate health for these populations (the metrics may provide complementary information). Overall, these results emphasise complex and variable patterns in the reproductive ecology of hermaphroditic species and my work is among the first to demonstrate such patterns over a small spatial scale. Further work can clarify questions raised in this study and benefit the conservation of hermaphroditic reef fish.