Open Access

Diel feeding migrations in tropical reef fishes

  • E. S. Hobson1
Helgoländer wissenschaftliche Meeresuntersuchungen24:BF01609526


1. Many tropical reef fishes that feed during the day rest at night, whereas many that feed at night rest during the day. The feeding grounds of many are some distance from their resting grounds. Thus they migrate between these two locations during twilight as part of a general changeover between diurnal and nocturnal situations.

2. At least many of these migrations are predictable, both as to time and to the route taken. The distances traveled vary between species, ranging from just a few meters, to more than several kilometers.

3. The pattern of migrations is strongly influenced by the relative threat from predators at different periods of the diel cycle.

4. During the day, migrations of reef fishes are limited to intra-reef movements: short vertical movements by certain plankton feeders, and lateral excursions from one part of the reef to another by certain herbivores and plankton feeders. Movements into the open regions that lie adjacent to many reefs are not adaptive in daylight due largely to a danger from predators.

5. Despite constant threat from predators during the day, smaller reef fishes remain relatively secure during most of this period by staying close to shelter, or by schooling. However, these defenses are less effective during twilight, when the danger from predators intensifies. The diurnal migrators return to the shelter of their resting places prior to that part of evening twilight when danger is greatest, and the nocturnal migrators usually do not expose themselves for their nightly foraging until after the period of maximum danger has passed. During morning twilight the sequence is reversed.

6. The major mechanisms whereby smaller reef fishes reduce predation during the day — schooling and staying close to shelter — are less evident at night. Not only do reef fishes range freely at night into the open regions that are avoided in daylight, but their schools are more loosely defined, and many are active as solitary individuals or in small groups. The tendency for looser associations and ranging farther afield increases on darker nights.

7. Most predators that threaten reef fishes are visual feeders whose mode of attack loses effectiveness when light falls below a certain level. Although they operate to some extent under moonlight, they threaten small reef fishes less at night than during the day.

8. In addition to whatever other ways a shcool may be adaptive, by reducing variable behavior among its members the school is especially important to migrating species. Responses to the various cues that mark the migration routes may be refined to within acceptable limits for the population as a whole only by coordinated group action.

9. Submarine topographical features are important reference points for migrating reef fishes.