Understanding the interplay between processes operating at large and small spatiotemporal scales in shaping biotic interactions remains challenging. Recent studies illustrate how phenotypic specialization, species life-history traits and/or resource partitioning recurrently underlie the structure of mutualistic interactions in terrestrial ecosystems along large latitudinal gradients of biodiversity. However, we know considerably less about how local processes interact with large-scale patterns of biodiversity in modulating biotic interactions in the marine realm. Considering agonistic behaviour as a proxy for contest competition, we empirically investigate whether the structure of reef fish agonistic interactions is conserved across a 34 000-km longitudinal gradient of biodiversity. By sampling coral reefs using standardized remote underwater video, we found recurrent patterns of fish agonistic behaviour in disparate communities distributed across five biogeographic provinces of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. While the sheer number of species increases with regional richness, the number of aggressive disputes at the habitat scale is similar across communities. We then combined generalized linear models and network theory to reveal that, the emergent structure of local agonistic networks is not modular but instead recurrently display a nested structure, with a core of highly interactive site-attached herbivores of the Pomacentridae family. Therefore, despite the increase in the number of species involved in agonistic interactions toward speciose communities, the network structure is conserved along the longitudinal richness gradient because local disputes are mostly driven by closely-related, functionally-similar species. These findings suggest that evolutionary and local processes interact in modulating reef fish agonistic behaviour and that fine-scale niche-partitioning can structure the ecological networks in marine ecosystems.
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- coral reefs
- ecological interactions
- ecological network
- species richness