Professor Mark McCormick runs the Coral Reef Ecology Laboratory at JCU.  He and his students often use the facilities of the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station for their field research. One of Mark’s major areas of interest is fish/habitat interactions and the influence of habitat degradation on fish communities.

Cyclones, the Crown of Thorns Starfish and coral bleaching has caused extensive habitat degradation around Lizard Island over the past 5 years. It is among the primary causes of biodiversity loss worldwide.

Bleached coral skeleton colonized by macroalgae © Maria del Mar Palacios

In coral reefs, habitat degeneration affects juvenile fishes by disrupting their risk assessment abilities and impairing their antipredator responses. This has serious implications for the replenishment and persistence of reef fish communities.

In 2016 Mark and his colleagues published two important scientific papers on this topic based on their research at Lizard Island. In Habitat degradation disrupts neophobia in juvenile coral reef fish they report that damselfish juveniles settling on degraded coral habitats are notably less cautious than those settling on live coral, and consequently four times less likely to survive.

Ambon Damselfish Pomacentrus amboinensis. Habitat degradation impairs anti-predator response in juveniles. © Maria del Mar Palacios


In Disrupted learning: habitat degradation impairs crucial anti predator responses in naive prey they report how degradation differently affects the ability of two damselfish species to identify novel predators. While the habitat generalist Pomacentrus amboinensis is severely impaired, the rubble specialist Pomacentrus coelestis is not.

Light traps to collect juvenile fish just before they settle on the Reef. @ Maria del Mar Palacios


Randell Barry (honours student), Dr.Maria del Mar Palacios and Mark McCormick have been examining the taxonomic extent of the problem.  They are determining which other families and species are likely to be affected by habitat degeneration. Here are Maria’s pics of some of the juvenile coral reef fishes that still need to be tested.

Jointed Razorfish Aeoliscus strigatus


Sailfin Tang  Zebrasoma veliferum


Beaked Coralfish Chelmon rostratus


Slender Squirrelfish Neoniphon sammara


Raggy Scorpionfish Scorpaenopsis venosa


Bluelined Rabbitfish Siganus doliatus


Banded Humbug damselfish Dascyllus aruanus