Diversity and distribution of mixed-species foraging groups in the Lakshadweep Islands, India
Species interactions are known to shape biological communities. While antagonistic interactions like competition and predation are well known, cooperative interactions have received comparatively less attention. Mixed-species foraging behaviour is a common phenomenon seen across various taxa including fish, birds and mammals, where different species form groups and forage together. Unlike symbiotic associations, these interactions are more dynamic and include a much larger subset of species of the community. We sampled mixed-species groups (MSG) of reef fish in the Lakshadweep islands, off the west coast of India. The data was gathered over four years following a mass-bleaching event which led to massive loss of coral in Lakshadweep in 2010. Though not widely reported, we discovered that mixed-species grouping is a common occurrence in the reef ecosystem. Around 130 of the 305 commonly observed species of fish in the Lakshadweep were seen participating in groups to some extent. Using a cluster analysis on species composition, we categorised the groups that were observed in Lakshadweep into nine compositional categories, which also exhibited variation in behaviour, habitat affinity and group cohesion. We then examined variation in grouping propensity, species richness, species evenness as well as species composition across space, time and habitat for the most commonly observed compositional categories. We found that invertivores tended to form smaller attendant groups, with clear nuclear-follower relationships, and likely form for direct foraging benefits. Herbivorous fish on the other hand formed large shoaling associations indicating benefits gained from increasing group size. We found evidence of the effect of the mass-bleaching event and subsequent ecosystem recovery on the formation of some groups. Reef fish MSGs are thus important components of these ecosystems and can both affect and be impacted by reef structure and function.