Paradoxical selective feeding on a low-nutrient diet: why do mangrove crabs eat leaves?
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Sesarmid crabs dominate Indo West-Pacific mangroves, and consume large amounts of mangrove litter. This is surprising, since mangrove leaves have high tannin contents and C/N ratios that far exceed 17, normally taken as the maximum for sustainable animal nutrition. This paradox has led to the hitherto untested hypothesis that crabs let leaves age in burrows before consumption, thereby reducing tannin content and C/N ratio. We excavated burrows of Neosarmatium meinerti within high-shore Avicennia marina mangroves, and investigated whether burrow leaves had C, N or C/N values significantly different from those of senescent leaves. Leaves were found in <45% of burrows, mostly only as small fragments, and N concentrations and C/N ratios of burrow leaves never varied significantly from senescent leaves. The leaf-ageing hypothesis was therefore not supported. In the field N. meinerti and Sesarma guttatum fed on sediment in 76% and 66–69% of observations, respectively, and on leaves in <10% of observations. Sediments from two A. marina mangroves had a mean C/N ratio of 19.6. Our results, and the literature, show that mangrove leaves are unlikely to fulfil the N requirements of crabs, whether or not leaf ageing takes place. Sediment detritus could be a richer source of N, as shown by lower C/N ratios and regular ingestion by crabs. By fragmenting leaves crabs may be elevating the nutritional quality of the substrate detritus.
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