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Habitat fragmentation differentially affects trophic levels and alters behavior in a multi-trophic marine system

Abstract

Seagrass, an important subtidal marine ecosystem, is being lost at a rate of 110 km2 year−1, leading to fragmented seagrass seascapes. Habitat fragmentation is predicted to affect trophic levels differently, with higher trophic levels being more sensitive, stressing the importance of a multi-trophic perspective. Utilizing the trophic relationship between the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and hard clam (Mercenaria mercenaria), where adult blue crabs prey on juvenile blue crabs, and juvenile blue crabs prey on small hard clams, we examined whether predation rates, abundance, and behavior of predators and prey differed between continuous and fragmented seagrass in a multi-trophic context at two sites in Barnegat Bay, NJ. We tested the hypothesis that fragmented habitats would differentially affect trophic levels within a tri-trophic system, and our results supported this hypothesis. Densities of adult blue crabs were higher in fragmented than continuous habitats. Densities of juvenile blue crabs, the primary predator of hard clams, were lower in fragmented habitats than continuous, potentially due to increased predation by adult blue crabs. Clams experienced lower predation and burrowed to a shallower depth in fragmented habitats than in continuous habitat, likely due in part to the low densities of juvenile blue crabs, their primary predator. Our results suggest that while trophic levels are differentially affected, the impact of habitat fragmentation may be stronger on intermediate rather than top trophic levels in some marine systems.

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Acknowledgements

We thank K. Bezik, C. Hines, R. Kwait, J. Linnell, D. Lopez, and B. Smith for laboratory and field assistance, K. Bezik for video analysis, Island Beach State Park, NJ for accommodating our research, Parsons Seafood Inc. for donating hard clam seed, and E. Cordes, M. Russell, and R. Sanders for useful feedback during the development of the project and manuscript. This study was supported by a Temple University Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences Grants 1225583 and 1434528.

Author contribution statement

EWR and ALF conceived and designed the experiments. EWR performed the experiments and analyzed the data. EWR and ALF wrote the manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to Elizabeth Rielly-Carroll.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Communicated by Joel Trexler.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (MPG 25236 kb). Video of blue crab foraging on prey item in continuous seagrass.

Supplementary material 1 (MPG 25236 kb). Video of blue crab foraging on prey item in continuous seagrass.

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Rielly-Carroll, E., Freestone, A.L. Habitat fragmentation differentially affects trophic levels and alters behavior in a multi-trophic marine system. Oecologia 183, 899–908 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3791-2

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Keywords

  • Habitat loss
  • Seagrass
  • Blue crabs
  • Fragmentation
  • Food webs