Environmental clines such as latitude and depth that limit species’ distributions may be associated with gradients in habitat suitability that can affect the fitness of an organism. With the global loss of shallow-water photosynthetic coral reefs, mesophotic coral ecosystems (~30–150 m) may be buffered from some environmental stressors, thereby serving as refuges for a range of organisms including mobile obligate reef dwellers. Yet habitat suitability may be diminished at the depth boundary of photosynthetic coral reefs. We assessed the suitability of coral-reef habitats across the majority of the depth distribution of a common demersal reef fish (Stegastes partitus) ranging from shallow shelf (SS, <10 m) and deep shelf (DS, 20–30 m) habitats in the Florida Keys to mesophotic depths (MP, 60–70 m) at Pulley Ridge on the west Florida Shelf. Diet, behavior, and potential energetic trade-offs differed across study sites, but did not always have a monotonic relationship with depth, suggesting that some drivers of habitat suitability are decoupled from depth and may be linked with geographic location or the local environment. Feeding and diet composition differed among depths with the highest consumption of annelids, lowest ingestion of appendicularians, and the lowest gut fullness in DS habitats where predator densities were highest and fish exhibited risk-averse behavior that may restrict foraging. Fish in MP environments had a broader diet niche, higher trophic position, and higher muscle C:N ratios compared to shallower environments. High C:N ratios suggest increased tissue lipid content in fish in MP habitats that coincided with higher investment in reproduction based on gonado-somatic index. These results suggest that peripheral MP reefs are suitable habitats for demersal reef fish and may be important refuges for organisms common on declining shallow coral reefs.
USA - Pulley Ridge