Diet and seasonal prey capture rates in the Mediterranean red coral (Corallium rubrum L.)
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Gorgonians are passive suspension feeders, contributing significantly to the energy flow of littoral ecosystems. More than in active suspension feeders (such as bivalves, ascidians and sponges) their prey capture is affected by spatial and temporal prey distribution and water movement. Corallium rubrum is a characteristic gorgonian of Mediterranean sublittoral hard bottom communities. This study found a high variability in the annual cycle of prey capture rate, prey size and ingested biomass, compared to other Mediterranean gorgonians. Detrital particulate organic matter (POM) was found throughout the year in the polyp guts and constituted the main proportion of the diet (25–44%). Crustacean fragments and copepods (14–46%) accounted for the second major proportion, while invertebrate eggs (9–15%) and phytoplankton (8–11%) constituted the smallest part of the diet. To verify the importance of detrital POM in the energy input of this precious octocoral species, in situ experiments were carried out during the winter–spring period. The results confirm the importance of detrital POM as the main source of food for C. rubrum [0.13±0.04 μg C polyp−1 h−1 (mean±SD)]. This study also compares the prey capture rates of two colony size classes and two depth strata: Within the same patch, small colonies (<6 cm height) captured significantly more prey per polyp (0.038±0.09 prey polyp−1 h−1) than larger colonies (>10 cm high) (0.026±0.097 prey polyp−1 h−1) and showed a higher proportion of polyps containing prey (17% compared to 10%). Comparing colonies of similar size (<6 cm height) revealed that the colonies situated at 40 m depth captured significantly more prey (0.038±0.09 prey polyp−1 h−1) than the ones at 20 m (0.025±0.11 prey polyp−1 h−1). One pulse of copepods was recorded that constituted 16% of all captured prey during the 15-month period studied in one of the sampled populations. The data suggest that the variability of hydrodynamic processes may have a higher influence on the feeding rate than seasonal changes in the seston composition. The carbon ingestion combined with data on the density of the exploited population results in 0.4–9.6 mg C m−2 day−1. The grazing impact of current, heavily exploited and small-sized populations is comparable to that of larger Mediterranean gorgonians, suggesting that unexploited red coral populations may have a high impact compared with other passive suspension feeders.