NYU Abu Dhabi Study Provides First Insights into the Unique Diets of Arabian Gulf Reef Fishes

Press release
Published October 2nd, 2017 - 08:51 GMT
Dark Damsel
Dark Damsel

New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) student and faculty researchers have studied the extreme temperatures of the Arabian Gulf to better understand how fish diets change in response to thermal stress, providing important insights into how diets may shift in other parts of the world under future climate change.


Researchers analyzed the contents of 146 stomachs from three different fish species, Arabian angelfish, Dark damselfish, and Paletail damselfish. Samples were collected seasonally over one year, providing the first detailed description of what fish in the southern Arabian Gulf eat and demonstrating how their diets change when sea temperatures fluctuate from cool at the start of the year to extremely hot during the summer.


One of the most significant findings has been that coral is the major component in the diets of all three fish species. “It’s fascinating because none of these species are known to consume coral in any meaningful quantity in other regions,” said John Burt, associate professor of biology and principal investigator of the NYUAD Marine Biology Lab.


“Our study provides some amazing insights into the unusual nature of fish diets in the thermally extreme southern Arabian Gulf, allowing us to start making predictions about how reef fish diets in other parts of the world might shift as climate change makes those areas warmer,” Burt added.


Climate change is altering the ecology of the world's coral reefs, affecting fish feeding behaviors and food availability for millions of fish that rely on reefs for their main meals. As Arabian Gulf sea temperatures can reach up to 37 degrees Celsius in the summer, the region provides invaluable opportunities to study the diets of local fish that have adapted to these extreme temperatures.


The research also explored the diets of Arabian angelfish, demonstrating that while angelfish are mainly known to specialize on sponges elsewhere in the world, off the shores of the UAE sponges account for only a very small portion of their diets.


“Sponges are fairly rare in southern Arabian Gulf reefs, so it appears that angelfish are switching their diets away from their preferred food to one that is much more common here: coral,” Burt concluded.


Diets of damselfishes also changed dramatically over the course of the year, the study found, fluctuating from periods where they mainly consumed coral to periods when their diets widened to include a suite of other organisms in the spring. It was determined that broadening diets by season might be a strategy to build up energy reserves quickly before the onset of the summer heat.


The research originated as a Capstone project led by NYUAD alumna Rasha Shraim, a biology major who graduated in the Class of 2016. The project used next-generation sequencing approaches to examine fish stomach contents rather than traditional microscopic surveys.


“Traditionally, researchers would have to pore over microscopes and visually sort through and try to identify small and partially digested pieces of foods. The metagenomics approach used in this study proved to be a fast and effective means of quickly identifying the materials in stomachs, including a wide variety of items that could never be identified using traditional approaches,” Burt noted.

Background Information

New York University Abu Dhabi

NYU's agreement with the Emirate of Abu Dhabi to create NYU Abu Dhabi is the outcome of a shared understanding of the essential roles and challenges of higher education in the 21st century: a common belief in the value of a liberal arts education, concurrence on the benefits a research university brings to the society that sustains it, a conviction that interaction with new ideas and people who are different is valuable and necessary, and a commitment to educating students who are true citizens of the world. As the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university, NYU Abu Dhabi has been built on the following principles:

NYU Abu Dhabi is a research university with a fully integrated liberal arts and science college. It draws students from around the world, and prepares them for the challenges and opportunities of our interconnected world. 

NYU Abu Dhabi equips students for leadership in all arenas of human endeavor. It fosters curiosity, creativity, and critical reflection. At NYU Abu Dhabi, students extend themselves and the frontiers of knowledge. 

The residential life of students is central to the academic mission. Learning takes place across the campus, not only in classrooms, but also in residential houses, in clubs and sports, in informal campus gatherings, and in the wider community. 

NYU Abu Dhabi stimulates advanced research. The NYU Abu Dhabi Institute is a major research center. Research is integral to the undergraduate experience at NYU Abu Dhabi, and it will also drive the University's graduate programs. 

NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU New York form the backbone of a fully connected Global Network University. As one of the two major hubs in the Global Network, NYU Abu Dhabi creates a unique capacity for faculty and students to access the assets of the entire university system.

NYU Abu Dhabi advances Abu Dhabi as a magnetic center of ideas and human talent.

Contact Information

New York University Abu Dhabi
P.O. Box 129188
Abu Dhabi,
United Arab Emirates

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