Coral Reefs

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 1253–1262 | Cite as

Predation on crown-of-thorns starfish larvae by damselfishes

  • Zara-Louise Cowan
  • Symon A. Dworjanyn
  • Ciemon F. Caballes
  • Morgan S. Pratchett


Examining the functional response of predators can provide insight into the role of predation in structuring prey populations and ecological communities. This study explored feeding behaviour and functional responses of planktivorous damselfishes when offered captive reared larvae of crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster sp., with the aim of determining whether these predators could ever play a role in moderating outbreaks of Acanthaster sp. We examined predatory behaviour of 11 species of planktivorous damselfish, testing: (1) the relationship between predator size and predation rate, both within and among fish species; (2) consumption rates on larvae of Acanthaster sp. versus larvae of a common, co-occurring coral reef asteroid Linckia laevigata; (3) maximal feeding rates upon both Acanthaster sp. and L. laevigata; and (4) functional responses of planktivorous fishes to increasing densities of Acanthaster sp. Consumption rates of crown-of-thorns larvae by damselfishes were independent of predator size; however, there was a significant negative relationship between predator size and consumption rate of L. laevigata, when pooling across all predatory species. Some damselfishes, including Acanthochromis polyacanthus and Amblyglyphidodon curacao, consumed larval Acanthaster sp. at a greater rate than for L. laevigata. Most predatory species (all except A. curacao and Pomacentrus amboinensis) exhibited a Type II functional response whereby the increasing feeding rate decelerated with increasing prey density. In addition to revealing that a wide range of planktivorous fishes can prey upon larvae of Acanthaster sp., these data suggest that planktivorous damselfishes may have the capacity to buffer against population fluctuations of Acanthaster sp. Importantly, predators with Type II functional responses often contribute to stability of prey populations, though planktivorous fishes may be swamped by an abnormally high influx of larvae, potentially contributing to the characteristic population fluctuations of Acanthaster sp.


Predation Functional response Chemical defence Acanthaster Larvae Damselfish 



This Project was funded by an Ian Potter Foundation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Grant awarded to ZLC by the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station, in addition to a research allocation supplied by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. We would like to thank Lyle Vail, Anne Hoggett, Alexander Buck, Alexia Graba-Landry, Molly Scott, Sam Matthews, Cassie van Wynen and Vanessa Messmer for field and laboratory assistance. Research was conducted in accordance with the James Cook University animal ethics guidelines. Fish and Acanthaster sp. were collected under Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority permit number G13/35909.1. Linckia laevigata were collected under Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority permit number G15/38002.1.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Zara-Louise Cowan
    • 1
  • Symon A. Dworjanyn
    • 2
  • Ciemon F. Caballes
    • 1
  • Morgan S. Pratchett
    • 1
  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.National Marine Science CentreSouthern Cross UniversityCoffs HarbourAustralia

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