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Mismatch between shape changes and ecological shifts during the post-settlement growth of the surgeonfish, Acanthurus triostegus

Bruno Frédérich1*, Orphal Colleye1, Gilles Lepoint2 and David Lecchini3

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratoire de Morphologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, Institut de Chimie (B6c), Université de Liège, Liège, Belgium

2 MARE, Laboratoire d’Océanologie, Institut de Chimie (B6c), Université de Liège, Liège, Belgium

3 CRIOBE, USR 3278 – CNRS / EPHE, Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement, Labex « CORAIL », CBETM – Université de Perpignan, Moorea, French Polynesia

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Frontiers in Zoology 2012, 9:8  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-9-8

Published: 25 April 2012



Many coral reef fishes undergo habitat and diet shifts during ontogeny. However, studies focusing on the physiological and morphological adaptations that may prepare them for these transitions are relatively scarce. Here, we explored the body shape variation related to ontogenetic shifts in the ecology of the surgeonfish Acanthurus triostegus (Acanthuridae) from new settler to adult stages at Moorea Island (French Polynesia). Specifically, we tested the relationship between diet and habitat shifts and changes in overall body shape during the ontogeny of A. triostegus using a combination of geometric morphometric methods, stomach contents and stable isotope analysis.


After reef settlement, stable isotope composition of carbon and nitrogen revealed a change from a zooplanktivorous to a benthic algae diet. The large amount of algae (> 75% of stomach contents) found in the digestive tract of small juveniles (25–30 mm SL) suggested the diet shift is rapid. The post-settlement growth of A. triostegus is highly allometric. The allometric shape changes mainly concern cephalic and pectoral regions. The head becomes shorter and more ventrally oriented during growth. Morphological changes are directly related to the diet shift given that a small mouth ventrally oriented is particularly suited for grazing activities at the adult stage. The pectoral fin is more anteriorely and vertically positioned and its basis is larger in adults than in juveniles. This shape variation had implications for swimming performance, manoeuvrability, turning ability and is related to habitat shift. Acanthurus triostegus achieves its main transformation of body shape to an adult-like form at size of 35–40 mm SL.


Most of the shape changes occurred after the reef colonization but before the transition between juvenile habitat (fringing reef) and adult habitat (barrier reef). A large amount of allometric variation was observed after diet shift from zooplankton to benthic algae. Diet shift could act as an environmental factor favouring or inducing morphological changes. On the other hand, the main shape changes have to be achieved before the recruitment to adult populations and start negotiating the biophysical challenges of locomotion and feeding in wave- and current-swept outer reef habitat.

Acanthuridae; Allometry; Diet; Geometric morphometrics; Habitat change; Moorea Island; Reef fishes