We compare the (relative) abundance of life phases [juveniles (JU), initial phase (IP) and terminal phase (TP) fish], social categories (territorial and group adults), and fish following alternative mating styles, in three local populations of the protogynous reef herbivore,Sparisoma viride, on the fringing reef of Bonaire (Netherlands Antilles). In order to determine the adaptive significance of variations in social organization, they are related to the density of conspecifics and other herbivores and to the availability of food, shelter and mating sites. The most striking difference is the high abundance of JU and group fish at one location (Playa Frans) and the total absence of group fish at another (Red Slave). These differences are coherent with a gradient in population density, total herbivore density, scarid grazing pressure, and reproductive output, all of which are highest at Playa Frans and lowest at Red Slave. Exposure to waves and currents shows an inverse trend. The differences in the relative abundance of territorial fish can be explained by the concept of economic defendability, which is reduced at higher population density. In a life history context, small TP group males represent ‘bachelors’ that sacrifice current reproduction for better future prospects. As predicted by life history theory, early sex change is promoted at sites where the future rewards are higher (higher spawning rates of large TP males) and where the costs incurred during the bachelor phase are reduced (more spawning opportunities for group TP males). At Red Slave an alternative male mating style (‘streaking’) appears to be promoted by the lack of a refuge for group TP males and by a dense gorgonian canopy, allowing IP males to reside inside territories. We conclude that most observed differences in population structure can be considered adaptive in an ecological and in a life history context. Population density is a major factor in both contexts. Analysis of the variability in adult density in relation to JU density and the availability of food and shelter indicates that theS. viride populations at Bonaire are not totally controlled by stochastic processes. Considering the small spatial scale and the high dispersal of the planktonic embryos and larvae, the observed variability in behavioural and life history traits ofS. viride points to a high degree of phenotypic plasticity.

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