Although it is now recognized that mutualistic species are common and can have stable populations, the forces controlling their persistence are poorly understood. To better understand the mechanisms that impact the stability of obligate mutualists, I conducted several field experiments within a sandy coral reef lagoon in Moorea, French Polynesia that manipulated densities of fish (gobies) that interact mutualistically with shrimp. Obligate, mutualistic partnerships of gobies and shrimp are common on Indo-Pacific coral reefs and have been shown previously to interact as follows: shrimp construct burrows in which both species reside, and gobies warn shrimp of predators through tactile communication. Augmentation of gobies by up to 100% above ambient densities within 9 m2 plots produced no change in overall density of gobies or shrimp because gobies competed intraspecifically for a limited number of shrimp burrows and smaller gobies were outcompeted by larger individuals. I used predators to assess the impact of goby removal on the stability of goby and shrimp populations. First, although surveys taken throughout the lagoon revealed no relationship between goby and predator densities, predators correlated negatively with the proportion of adult gobies and positively with the proportion of small gobies paired with large shrimp. Second, experimental augmentation of predators resulted in a dramatic reduction of adult gobies within predator-addition plots, but had no impact on overall densities as immigrants rapidly replaced the missing adult gobies. Furthermore, goby turnover resulted in an increase in the proportion of small gobies paired with large shrimp because body sizes of gobies and shrimp in a burrow were similar prior to predator introduction, and predators apparently had a greater impact on gobies than shrimp. The mechanisms that prevent expansion (intraspecific competition) and collapse (immigration) of goby-shrimp populations likely contribute to local-scale stability of mutualistic populations in other terrestrial and aquatic environments.
Coral reef fish Gobioidei Snapping shrimp Symbiosis Open population