, Volume 64, Issue 3, pp 396-407

Predictable spatial escapes from herbivory: how do these affect the evolution of herbivore resistance in tropical marine communities?

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Between-habitat differences in macrophyte consumption by herbivorous fishes were examined on three Caribbean and two Indian Ocean coral reefs. Transplanted sections of seagrasses were used as a bioassay to compare removal rates in reef-slope, reef-flat, sand-plain, and lagoon habitats. Herbivore susceptibility of fifty-two species of seaweeds from these habitats was also measured in the field. Seagrass consumption on shallow reef slopes was always significantly greater than on shallow reef flats, deep sand plains, or sandy lagoons. Reef-slope seaweeds were consistently resistant to herbivory while reef-flat seaweeds were consistently very susceptible to herbivory. This pattern supports the hypothesis that defenses against herbivores are costly in terms of fitness and are selected against in habitats with predictably low rates of herbivory.

Sand-plain and lagoon seaweeds showed a mixed response when placed in habitats with high herbivore pressure; most fleshy red seaweeds were eaten rapidly, most fleshy green seaweeds were eaten at intermediate rates, and most calcified green seaweeds were avoided or eaten at very low rates. Differences in susceptibility between red and green seaweeds from sand-plain or lagoon habitats may result from differential competitive pressures experienced by these seaweed groups or from the differential probability of being encountered by herbivores. The susceptibility of a species to removal by herbivorous fishes was relatively consistent between reefs. Preferences of the sea urchin Diadema antillarum were also similar to those of the fish guilds.

Unique secondary metabolites were characteristic of almost all of the most herbivore resistant seaweeds. However, some of the herbivore susceptible species also contain chemicals that have been proposed as defensive compounds. Genera such as Sargassum, Turbinaria, Thalassia, Halodule, and Thalassodendron, which produce polyphenolics or phenolic acids, were consumed at high to intermediate rates, suggesting that these compounds are not effective deterrents for some herbivorous fishes. Additionally, potential for the production of the compounds caulerpin, caulerpicin and caulerpenyne in various species of Caulerpa did not assure low susceptibility to herbivory.

Heavily calcified seaweeds were very resistant to herbivory, but all of these species also produce toxic secondary metabolites which makes it difficult to distinguish between the effects of morphological and chemical defenses. Predictions of susceptibility to herbivory based on algal toughness and external morphology were of limited value in explaining differing resistances to herbivory.