Screen_Shot_2015-05-05_at_8.09.46_PMBelize is home to a portion of the largest barrier reef in the Caribbean, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Hundreds of species of fish including the invasive LionFish inhabit this diverse coral reef system, many of them unique to the region. And recently, scientists have revealed that after examining the stomach contents of invasive lionfish caught on the inner barrier reef of Belize, they have discovered that nearly half of the diet of these aggressive fish consist of a critically endangered fish known as the social wrasse. The social wrasse is one of five coral reef fishes listed at the highest risk of extinction on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Found only on clear water reefs around inshore mangrove islands in Belize, “its combination of traits, small size, schooling, and low, hovering behavior—make it an easy target for the lionfish,” says Smithsonian scientist Carole Baldwin of the Division of Fishes at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Social wrasses represented 46 percent of the fishes found in lionfish stomachs, making them the primary prey item of the lionfish. One lionfish had 18 social wrasses in its stomach. The report ended that other Caribbean fish species with traits similar to the social wrasse and limited ranges may face the same fate. So why is this important to Belize? While the immediate consequences of the extinction of the social wrasse might not seem important for many, such consequences may start a chain of events that would negatively influence its entire habitat. Most reef inhabitants feed on animals and plants found on the reef itself. But the social wrasse feeds on plankton that comes from the open ocean, and thus serves as a nutrient source for the reef itself, transferring resources from the open ocean to the reef. Removing the social wrasse can have severe impacts on the local ecosystem’s health. And what is happening now on a small scale in Belize might be a predictor of what could happen in other areas of the Caribbean in the future.

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