Habitat context influences predator interference interactions and the strength of resource partitioning
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Despite increasing evidence that habitat structure can shape predator–prey interactions, few studies have examined the impact of habitat context on interactions among multiple predators and the consequences for combined foraging rates. We investigated the individual and combined effects of stone crabs (Menippe mercenaria) and knobbed whelks (Busycon carica) when foraging on two common bivalves, the hard clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) and the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa) in oyster reef and sand flat habitats. Because these species co-occur across these and other estuarine habitats of varying physical complexity, this system is ideal for examining how habitat context influences foraging rates and the generality of predator interactions. Consistent with results from previous studies, consumption rates of each predator in isolation from the other were higher in the sand flat than in the more structurally complex oyster reef habitat. However, consumption by the two predators when combined surprisingly did not differ between the two habitats. This counterintuitive result probably stems from the influence of habitat structure on predator–predator interactions. In the sand-flat habitat, whelks significantly reduced their consumption of their less preferred prey when crabs were present. However, the structurally more complex oyster reef habitat appeared to reduce interference interactions among predators, such that consumption rates when the predators co-occurred did not differ from predation rates when alone. In addition, both habitat context and predator–predator interactions increased resource partitioning by strengthening predator dietary selectivity. Thus, an understanding of how habitat characteristics such as physical complexity influence interactions among predators may be critical to predicting the effects of modifying predator populations on their shared prey.
KeywordsContext dependency Habitat structure Oyster reef Predator dietary selectivity Predator interference
We thank C. Peterson for his advice on the design of the experiment. E. Calvert, M. Dolan, D. Kimbro, and R. Wagaman helped in the field and the lab. We are grateful to B. Miner and J. Stachowicz for their assistance with statistical analyses and interpretation. M. Bracken, J. Byrnes, L. Carney, B. Griffen, S. Olyarnik, C. Peterson, J. Stachowicz, D. Strong, and three anonymous reviewers provided useful comments on the manuscript. Financial support was provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration–National Estuarine Research Reserve System Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the North Carolina Fishery Resource Grant Program. This experiment was in compliance with the current laws of the USA.
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