The Next Frontier in Understanding the Evolution of Coral Reef Fish Societies

Publication Name

Frontiers in Marine Science


Research on sociality in marine fishes is a vibrant field that is providing new insights into social evolution more generally. Here, we review the past two decades of research, identifying knowledge gaps and new directions. Two coral reef fishes, with social systems similar to other cooperative breeders, have emerged as models: the clown anemonefish Amphiprion percula and the emerald goby Paragobiodon xanthosoma. In these systems, non-breeders do not forgo their own reproduction to gain indirect genetic benefits. Rather, they do so because they stand to inherit the territory in the future and there are strong ecological and social constraints. The reasons why breeders tolerate non-breeders remain obscure, though it is plausibly a combination of weak kin selection, bet-hedging, and benefits mediated via mutualistic interactions with cnidarian hosts. The latter is particularly interesting, given the parallels with other social animals with mutualistic partners, such as acacia ants. Looking beyond the two model species, our attention is turning to species with more complex social organization, such as the damselfish Dascyllus aruanus. Here, variable group stability, conflict intensity, and reproductive skew provide opportunities to test theories of social evolution that have only been tested in a few taxa. New methods like social network analysis are enabling us to uncover more subtle effects of ecology on social interactions. More recently, comparative methods have yielded insights into the correlates of interspecific variation in sociality in the genera to which our model species belong. Phylogenetically controlled contrasts within the genus Gobiodon, have revealed the role of ecology, life history traits, and their interaction in sociality: smaller bodied species are more social than larger bodied species, which are only social on large corals. As climate change affects coral reefs, there is a pressing need to understand the many ways in which environmental disturbance influences these unique social systems. In sum, coral reef fishes have enabled us to test the robustness of current theories of social evolution in new taxa and environments, and they have generated new insights into social evolution that are applicable to a wider variety of taxa.

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Boston University



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