, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 317-330

Refugees or ravenous predators: detecting predation on new recruits to tropical estuarine nurseries

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Many of the most abundant small and juvenile fishes within shallow water estuarine nursery habitats consume other fish to some degree but have rarely been considered as potentially important predators in the functioning of these systems because of the low (<50%) average occurrence of fish in their diets. Predation by abundant minor piscivores on new recruits when they first enter the nursery may make a significant contribution to the predation mortality of this critical life-history stage. To determine the potential importance of minor piscivores as predators on new recruits, temporal patterns in the diets of 15 common species of minor piscivores were examined and related to the abundance of new recruits (≤20 mm FL) in biweekly seine samples over 13 months in shallow (<1.5 m) sandy habitats in the Ross River estuary in north-eastern Queensland, Australia. The high spatial patchiness of new recruits made it difficult to correlate their abundance with their consumption by minor piscivores, and there was no relationship detected between the abundance of new recruits and the occurrence of fish in the diets of minor piscivores. To gain broader insight into spatio-temporal patterns in the consumption of fish prey by minor piscivores, we utilised a collection of fishes sampled during various studies over 6 years from 17 estuaries in the region to examine the diets of >3500 individuals from 20 spp. of minor piscivores. Patterns in the consumption of fish prey by these minor piscivores, especially the highly abundant sparids, sillaginids and ambassids, revealed that the low average occurrence of fish in their diet greatly underestimated the predation pressure imposed by these on fish prey at particular locations and times. For most sampling occasions and locations few minor piscivores consumed fish prey (consumed by 0% of individuals examined), while occasionally a large proportion of individuals within a taxon did so (50–100% of individuals consumed fish prey). Often at such times/locations multiple species of minor piscivores simultaneously preyed heavily on fish. When minor piscivores consumed fish, they preyed mainly on small new recruits. Because many of these minor piscivores are relatively recent recruits, many of the small and juvenile fishes believed to gain refuge in shallow estuarine nurseries may themselves be important predators on fish subsequently recruiting to these habitats, and so potentially play a significant role in structuring estuarine fish faunas and the functioning of shallow water nurseries.