Introduction

There are three critical features of coral reef fish faunas. First, they represent the most diverse assemblages of vertebrates on the planet. Second, this diversity may be seen at very local scales; hundreds of species co-occur within relatively small areas. Third, most species have broad geographical distributions. Thus, the observer moving across a small area of reef will encounter many different species of fish. Moving over relatively small areas (500 m2 ) of reef habitat can reveal up to 100 species of reef fishes, far more vertebrates than would be encountered in any terrestrial habitat. If the scale of observation is increased to cover geographically distant reefs within the same ocean basin similar diversities may be encountered and in many instances the same species will be observed. However, species diversity and species identity do vary on geographic scales in ways that reflect the location and the evolutionary history of the reef habitat. In order to understand the processes that underlie this incredible diversity of fishes we must also appreciate the forces that have modified the reef habitat over time.

In this chapter we provide an introduction to some of the important species groups and to the functional diversity of fishes on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). We do not try to provide a catalogue or identification guide to all the different groups. There are many studies that do this (Box 28.1). Instead we wish to pose some general questions about the GBR reef fish fauna. What is the relationship of the GBR fishes to other reef fish faunas? Do they have any unusual or unique features? Are there distinctive features of the GBR fauna that reflect the location, structure and history of the GBR itself? For this we must describe not only the fishes but also the geological history and oceanographic processes that have contributed to the formation of their habitat, the largest and most complex reef structure in the world.

We also provide examples of different groups of fishes that illustrate some of the important ecological features that help define the GBR and reflect its history. These examples provide an insight into some of the l atest research initiatives on GBR fishes and identify future directions this may take.

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