, Volume 2, Issue 6, pp 511-523

Predation and the Control of the Sea Urchin Echinometra viridisand Fleshy Algae in the Patch Reefs of Glovers Reef, Belize

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ABSTRACT

The massive reduction in sea urchin Diadema antillarum populations since the mid-1980s has been associated with large increases in the abundance of fleshy algae on many Caribbean reefs despite the availability of other sea urchin and finfish grazers. This study examined the ecology of a grazer living sympatrically with D. antillarum, the common and abundant sea urchin Echinometra viridis. I examined the role that finfish and invertebrate predators play in controlling the distribution of E. viridis as well as the ability of this sea urchin to control exposed fleshy algae on the patch reefs of the Glovers Reef Atoll lagoon. I found that the major predators of this sea urchin were Calamus bajonado (jolthead porgy), Balistes vetula and Canthidermis sufflamen (queen and ocean triggerfish), Lachnolaimus maximus (hogfish), and a gastropod, probably Cassis madagascariensis. The abundance of E. viridis is constrained by predation, which restricts E. viridis to cryptic locations, such as crevices. Sea urchins bit a smaller percentage of experimental algal assays than finfish. Finfish herbivory was associated positively with patch reef topographic complexity. Unexpectedly, E. viridis abundance was positively correlated with fleshy algal abundance, but negatively correlated with the frequency of finfish bites. Predators restrict E. viridis to crevices and therefore reduce their influence on exposed fleshy algae, even at moderately high population densities (up to 10 per square meter). Since net benthic primary production of coral reefs is most strongly associated with herbivory on exposed surfaces, it would appear that E. viridis is unable to maintain the same production as reefs dominated by D. antillarum.

Received 5 November 1998; accepted 2 June 1999.