The effects of three forms of density-dependent regulation were explored in model coral reef fish populations: top-down (predation), bottom-up (competition for food), and pelagic (non-reef-based mechanisms) control. We describe the demographic responses of both biomass and numbers of adult fish, predicting the mean and the variance of temporal fluctuations resulting from stochastic recruitment of juveniles. We find that top-down control acts by suppressing variability of numbers of fish, which in turn suppresses the variability of biomass. Bottom-up control has no effect on fluctuations of numbers of fish, though it strongly reduces fluctuations of biomass. Because fecundity of fish is directly linked to body mass, the regulation of biomass tightly regulates reproductive output independently of the number of individuals in the population. Finally, populations under pelagic control experience bounded fluctuations of biomass and numbers directly proportional to the bounded fluctuations of recruitment. The demographic signatures predicted from both bottom-up and pelagic control are consistent with current evidence supporting the recruitment limitation hypothesis in reef fish ecology. We propose tests to discriminate the dominant mode of density-dependent regulation using qualitative trends in time series demographic data across environmental clines.
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