Marine Biology

, Volume 151, Issue 5, pp 1761–1772 | Cite as

Food preferences and related behavior of the browsing sea urchin Tripneustes gratilla (Linnaeus) and its potential for use as a biological control agent

  • John StimsonEmail author
  • Tamar Cunha
  • Joanna Philippoff
Research Article


The short-spined toxopneustid sea urchin Tripneustes gratilla feeds on a wide variety of algal species and on sea grasses. However, the urchin does show preferences when offered a selection of macroalgal species, which it encounters in nature. Preferences among macroalgae were evident in field-collected urchins exposed to pair-wise tests where the variable was either the consumption rate of the algae or observation of which algal species the urchins chose to touch with their lantern teeth. Exposure of lab-housed urchins to one of five species of macroalgae for 5 months did not seem to alter preferences of urchins in three of the exposure groups, but those exposed to Padina sanctae-crucis seemed to show an enhanced preference for this species when offered a choice of the five species of macroalgae at the end of the exposure period, and those exposed to Gracilaria salicornia seemed to avoid the species when offered the choice of the five species. Perhaps more ecologically important than their preferences were two other observations on these urchins: first, when offered only a single species of algae, the urchins on four of five diets ate the same quantity per day. Second, when simultaneously offered the choice among the five macroalgal species, the urchins consumed more macroalgae per day than when offered only one species. These urchins move about a meter a day. They probably encounter food resources in a relatively coarse-grained fashion and have evolved to eat what is available. Because of their limited movements, their habitat overlap with grazing fishes, their acceptance of a wide variety of macroalgae and their preference for macroalgae, these native urchins are thought to have the potential to serve as biological control agents of alien and invasive macroalgae, which have come to dominate some reef zones normally occupied by corals in Hawaii.


Macroalgae Reef Flat Patch Reef Reef Slope Herbivorous Fish 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We gratefully acknowledge the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology for access to its facilities and the Univ. of Hawaii, Dept. of Zoology for use of equipment and facilities. We wish to thank Meghan Dailer, Shino Ogawa, and Rudolf Pan for assistance with experiments and with data collection. The manuscript has benefited from comments by Drs. Karla McDermid and Charles Birkeland. Support for this research came from the Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative. The study complies with the laws in the State of Hawaii and the United States.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zoology DeptartmentUniversity of HawaiiHonoluluUSA

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