Scientists at James Cook University said they're attempting to understand the process of fish population decline when coral reefs sustain major damage.
Their research found that large reef fish like coral trout, snapper and sweetlips show a marked preference for sheltering under large, flat table corals, as opposed to branching corals or massive corals known as bommies.
"Like human beings, fish have strong preferences on where they like to hang out -- and it appears that they much prefer to shelter under overhanging table corals," researcher James Kerry said.
This is significant in terms of climate change impacts of different type of reef corals, the researchers said.
"The importance of this finding is that table corals are among the types most vulnerable to climate change," researcher David Bellwood said in a university release. "In shallow waters and on the tops of reefs, they are often the main source of cover for these big fish."
"If they die back as a result of bleaching or disease, or are destroyed by storm surges, this would strip the reef of one of its main attractions, from a coral trout's viewpoint," he said.
The findings may provide a useful insight to reef managers about the importance of trying to maintain a range of structures and shelters as climate change bears down on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the researchers said.