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Table of Contents
Coral reefs are complex ecosystems occupying less than 1% of the surface area of the world’s oceans. But within these colorful environments reside 25% of all marine fish species. All kinds of creatures make coral reefs their home, from concealed crustaceans to colorful fish and scary sharks.
See the fact file below for more information on Coral Reef Fish, or you can download our 29-page Coral Reef Fish worksheet pack to utilize within the classroom or home environment.
Key Facts & Information
- Any species that spend time on the reef is classified as reef fish. They could be sedentary like clownfish that remain inside the protection of anemones or mobile, moving from one reef to another.
- Fish populating these environments vary in size and feeding strategies, with each animal fulfilling a specific role in the diverse ecosystem. These organisms have various relationships with each other and help maintain a beneficial balance in the depths of the waters.
- Many of these fish are seen in aquariums, such as parrotfish, clownfishs, rabbit fish, butterflyfish, groupers, moray eels, and reef sharks, but many remain elusive in their natural habitat.
- Fish play an essential part in maintaining the reef ecosystem, as coral reefs struggle to recover from bleaching, pollution, or infection without fish. These organisms fulfill their respective roles through their feeding strategies, namely as herbivores, corallivorous, planktivores, parasite pickers, and carnivores.
- In these cases, they eat the macroalgae that hinder damaged corals from full recovery. Other types of eaters include corallivorous, zooplankton, parasite, and fellow fish eaters.
- Corallivorous fish such as butterflyfish and parrotfishes eat coral. Though it may sound counterproductive, they reshape the reef and control fast-growing corals.
- Planktivores feed in the water column away from the reef. When they return to the reef to rest after feeding on zooplankton, they deposit essential carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus onto the reef.
- Highly specialized small fish such as cleaner wrasse set up “cleaning stations” for larger fish, where they eat dead skin, scales, and parasites. These fish improve the health of larger fish and encourage the deposition of larval fish on the reef.
- Carnivores have their own feeding strategies, as some target unsuspecting prey, such as lionfish and scorpionfish, and others pursue their prey through the water, like jacks and sharks. Through these predators, there can be control of mid-level piscivores so that herbivores can still consume macroalgae.
Symbiosis & Ecosystem
- The feeding strategies present in a coral reef ecosystem are prime examples of symbiotic relationships in action. These kinds of symbiosis are categorized as mutualistic, commensalism, and parasitic.
- Fire corals contain stinging cells called nematocysts, which prevent close contact with nearby organisms. Due to its large and skinless pectoral fins, a hawkfish can survey its surroundings and grab prey while under the protection of the fire coral. Since the fire coral does not benefit from this relationship, this is considered commensalism.
- One of the more familiar examples of mutualism involves sea anemones and clownfish. The clownfish is fiercely territorial, protecting the sea anemone from butterflyfish, whose main diet consists of sea anemones. In return, the sea anemone provides protection with its sting, which does not affect clownfish due to its mucus coating.
- Lastly, a wide variety of parasites are present in coral reef fish, like parasitic crustaceans, such as isopods and copepods, and flatworms. They may reside in several hosts, from sharks to mollusks, and each coralfish species is expected to have up to 30 species of parasites at a time. Invasive fish such as lionfish may disrupt coral reef ecosystem processes, posing a threat and the depletion of native species.
Structural Adaptations for Feeding
- There are a variety of methods and adaptations for feeding, depending on which area of the reef they inhabit and their diet.
- Fish may live above the reef, on the surface of the reef, in nooks and crannies, and on the bottom of the reef. Fish have evolved so that they have special mouth features to help them obtain their food.
- Butterflyfish are omnivores and have short small mouths to feed on growing algae on the surface of the reef and small invertebrates like coral polyps and anemones.
- Planktivores such as damselfish have short snouts but relatively big mouths to suck plankton out of the water column. They also tend to consume algae but weed out those that they dislike.
- Carnivorous species ambush predators such as eels and wait in crevices in the reef with their mouths open to capture passing prey. Their large mouths are lined with rows of big sharp teeth.
- Goatfish swim near the bottom sediment to look for worms and other soft-bodied invertebrates in the sand. Thus, they have mouths on the bottom of their snouts with two feelers as sensors.
- The parrotfish boasts a bulky jaw with large fused teeth to scrape algae and corals off the reef. Despite its large frame, it is primarily a herbivore.
Structural Adaptations for Defense
- It’s a fish-eat-fish world underwater, which is why the inhabitants of the coral reef have developed defense structures to ensure their survival.
- Surgeonfish are named after the scalpel-like spines on the base of their tales. A swipe from their knife-like tails can cut an enemy.
- The spines on the butterflyfish are not as prominent, but the vivid coloration warns that their hidden spines will make them uncomfortable food.
- The millet butterflyfish has cryptic coloring to confuse predators, with large false eye spots near their tails so that they appear bigger.
- The porcupine pufferfish is famous for the spikes that jut out when they inflate their bodies with water to avoid being eaten.
- Carnivores such as scorpionfish blend into their habitat not to hide from predators but to disguise themselves from unsuspecting prey. To defend themselves from top-level predators, they also have poisonous spines.
- Though corals are not fish, it’s important to note that they have stinging cells called nematocysts, and they secrete mucus to slough off anything that settles on them.
Fishy Facts (Herbivores)
- Butterflyfish are colorful and live closely with corals. Their bodies are plate-like, and they are often seen in pairs and sometimes in schools.
- Their tails look just like their head, so predators won’t know which direction to sneak up on them or which way they will swim away. Their diet consists of coral polyps and algae, and their abundance is associated with healthy coral reefs.
- Parrotfish are brightly colored with a head shaped like a parrot’s beak. Their beaks help scrape algae off of dead rocks, helping the reefs rebuild. They may sometimes use their beaks to bite chunks off the corals, which they then excrete as sand.
- Rabbitfish are common reef fish, which are named after their rabbit-like noses. They are also herbivores and provide a food source for sharks and even humans. They protect themselves at night by extending their dorsal and anal fin spines as they sleep.
- Despite their blade-like spines, surgeonfish are actually herbivores. They are quite rare, and their presence is an indicator of reef biodiversity. They are sensitive to changes in habitat and fishing pressures.
Fishy Facts (Carnivores)
- Moray eels are not related to snakes but are actually a type of bony fish. They have a serpentine shape and live in the many caves and holes in corals and rocks. They feed on crustaceans and small fish and are important in regulating the balance of the reef, as they may also become prey for barracuda or sea snakes.
- Groupers are ambush predators living along the bottom of the reef. They lie and wait for small fish or invertebrates to come close and then suck their prey in by creating a strong current. As intermediate predators, they are a vital link in the food chain.
- Snappers are predatory fish, with their diets consisting of other fish and crustaceans. They can be solitary or live in schools. They are a favorite of the fishing industry and are used to assess the presence of any fishing-related threats.
- Triggerfish are large reef fish that are notoriously territorial and aggressive. They have two triggers that are used to warn intruders and to crack into reefs while sleeping. They are very intelligent and use rocks as tools to crack open-shelled organisms.
- Reef sharks have a fast and streamlined body and use all their senses to search for their prey. Due to their well-developed features, they are the top predator of the marine ecosystem.
Coral Reef Situation
- Coral reefs can protect coastlines from storms and provide jobs for local communities through food and medicine production.
- The fishing, diving, and snorkeling industries strongly rely on these ecosystems and are estimated to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to local businesses.
- Despite this, coral reefs face various threats, both natural and man-made. The diversity of organisms that inhabit coral reefs provides protection from threats such as diseases, predators, and storms. But man-made dangers such as pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, and climate change have worn down the protection that the coral reef ecosystem naturally provides.
- The ocean temperature has been continually rising, leading to ocean acidification. This results in coral bleaching and death, possibly displacing the hundreds of species of fish that make coral reefs their home.
- Though its effects may be already felt, this phenomenon is still reversible. Corals can recover as conditions improve, though it may take more than years. Scientific advancements have also been developed to make this arduous endeavor more manageable.
Coral Reef Fish Worksheets
This is a fantastic bundle that includes everything you need to know about Coral Reef Fish across 29 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use worksheets that are perfect for teaching kids about Coral Reef Fish, which are fish species that live in close relation with the coral reefs.
Complete List of Included Worksheets
Below is a list of all the worksheets included in this document.
- Coral Reef Fish
- Identify the FIsh
- Finding Fish
- Complete the Sentence
- Feeding Adaptations
- Food Cycle
- Eels and Scorpionfish
- Symbiotic Relationships
- The Butterfly(fish) Effect
- Design Your Defenses
- Protect Our Reefs!
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of fish lives in a coral reef?
Coral reefs provide food and shelter for important commercial fish species such as grouper, snapper, and lobster.
How long do coral reef fish live?
Many species of these fishes can survive up to 50 years, while others live an average lifespan between 10 and 30.
Do fishes eat coral?
Approximately one-third of fishes that feed on coral has an ‘obligate’ association with their prey, meaning that most of their diet is devoted to consuming it. The other two-thirds may include coral as a crucial part of their meals but also consume different types of food.
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Link will appear as Coral Reef Fish Facts & Worksheets: https://kidskonnect.com - KidsKonnect, October 26, 2022
Use With Any Curriculum
These worksheets have been specifically designed for use with any international curriculum. You can use these worksheets as-is, or edit them using Google Slides to make them more specific to your own student ability levels and curriculum standards.