The red grouper seems like a simple fish that floats placidly along the sea floor. But a new study from Florida State University published in the Open Fish Science Journal says the fish is actually a diligent architect and engineer of the ocean bottom. In fact, the red grouper excavates and maintains complex, three-dimensional structures that provide homes for other indigenous aquatic species.

The study was led by Felicia C. Coleman, director of Florida State University's Coastal and Marine Laboratory. According to Dr. Coleman, “the red grouper's sandy architecture is a monument to the interconnectedness of species and the vital role such connections play in the structural and functional diversity of the ocean.” Dr. Coleman goes on to suggest that the structures red groupers create attract beneficial parasitic species, as well as a variety of prey species for the red grouper.

This hard-working fish is found mostly along Florida's west coast, but also can be found in specific ecosystems from North Carolina to Brazil. It lives in ledges and crevices of rocky limestone reefs as well as in shallow waters. The red grouper appears to putter along the sea floor, but in fact the fish is removing sand and exposing hard rocks. This in turn is crucial to corals and sponges and the animals they shelter.

These findings will have implications on the future of area fishing, as the red grouper is in danger of being overfished. But if you remove “habitat engineers” like the red grouper from the environment, there will be a domino effect in lost diversity to the eco-system. According to expert Susan Williams of University of California-Davis, “if the groupers are overfished, the suite of species that depends on them is likely to suffer." Further, there would also be significant side effects to the reefs of the area. 

In the end, scientists hope this study will bolster the red grouper's standing among fisheries management and biodiversity protection authorities.

For further reading:  New study reveals red grouper to be 'Frank Lloyd Wrights of the sea'