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Swarms of swift scavengers: ecological role of marine intertidal hermit crabs in California

Abstract

While marine hermit crabs are well known for being omnivorous filter feeders, less is known about the role they may play as active carrion scavengers in intertidal ecosystems. Prior studies have revealed that intertidal hermit crabs can be attracted to chemical cues from predated gastropods. Yet their attraction is usually assumed to be driven primarily by the availability of new shells rather than by food. We conducted field experiments to assess hermit crabs’ potential role as generalist carrion scavengers on the California Coast, examining their speed of attraction and the size of the aggregations they formed in response to chemical cues from freshly smashed gastropods and mussels, both of which indicated available carrion. Compared to all other marine species, hermit crabs (Pagurus samuelis, P. hirsutiusculus, and P. granosimanus) were the fastest to arrive at the provisioning sites. Hermit crabs also dominated the provisioning sites, accumulating in the largest numbers, with aggregations of up to 20 individuals, which outcompeted all other scavengers for carrion. Notably, hermit crabs arrived equally quickly for both smashed gastropod and mussel, even though the latter does not offer suitable shells for hermit crabs and even though the former only yields shell-related chemical cues over time frames longer than our experiments. These results thus suggest that shell availability is not the only, or even the primary, reason marine intertidal hermit crabs aggregate at carrion sites; they also aggregate to forage, thereby playing an important role as active carrion scavengers in intertidal ecosystems.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Bodega Marine Laboratory and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for permission to conduct this research. We are especially grateful to Jackie Sones, Kitty Brown, and Eric Sanford at Bodega and to Tim Herrlinger at Berkeley for their helpful advice, discussion, and logistical support. We also thank Jennifer Bates and Maryann Davies for assistance with some of the final field experiments. Research was supported by funding from the Miller Institute at Berkeley to M.L.

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Correspondence to Mark E. Laidre.

Additional information

Communicated by F. Bulleri.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

227_2015_2639_MOESM1_ESM.pdf

Figure S1. Google Earth image of the intertidal study site outside the Bodega Marine Laboratory, with the site divided into four main stretches, each of which contained 20–30 tide pools (PDF 277 kb)

227_2015_2639_MOESM2_ESM.pdf

Figure S2. Number (mean + SE) of gastropods present within the quadrat during each minute of the experiment. (see Figure 2 for details; scale of y-axis same as Figure 2) (PDF 18 kb)

227_2015_2639_MOESM3_ESM.pdf

Figure S3. Number (mean + SE) of brachyuran crabs present within the quadrat during each minute of the experiment (see Figure 2 for details; scale of y-axis same as Figure 2) (PDF 17 kb)

227_2015_2639_MOESM4_ESM.pdf

Figure S4. Number (mean + SE) of gobies present within the quadrat during each minute of the experiment (see Figure 2 for details; scale of y-axis same as Figure 2) (PDF 17 kb)

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Laidre, M.E., Greggor, A.L. Swarms of swift scavengers: ecological role of marine intertidal hermit crabs in California. Mar Biol 162, 969–977 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-015-2639-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-015-2639-3

Keywords

  • Hermit Crab
  • Tide Pool
  • Brachyuran Crab
  • Intertidal Ecosystem
  • Carrion Source