As humans expand into natural environments, populations of wild organisms may become relegated to marginal habitats at the boundaries of their distributions. In the ocean, mesophotic coral ecosystems (30-150 m) at the depth limit of photosynthetic reefs are hypothesized to act as refuges that are buffered from anthropogenic and natural disturbances, yet the viability and persistence of subpopulations in these peripheral habitats remains poorly understood. To assess the potential for mesophotic reefs to support robust coral reef fish populations, we compared population density and structure, growth, size, and reproductive output of the bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus) from shallow (<10 m), deep shelf (20-30 m), and mesophotic reefs (60-70 m) across the Florida Platform. Population densities decreased and size and age distributions shifted toward older and larger individuals in deeper habitats. Otolith-derived ages indicated that S. partitus found on mesophotic reefs reach larger asymptotic sizes and have longer lifespans than fish in shallower habitats. Based on measurements of oocyte area and batch fecundity, mesophotic fish also have higher reproductive investment. These demographic patterns indicate that mesophotic fish populations composed of large, fecund individuals produce high condition larvae and rely on longevity of individuals for population persistence and viability.
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