Interspecific variation in potential importance of planktivorous damselfishes as predators of Acanthaster sp. eggs

Abstract

Coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster sp.) often exhibit dramatic population outbreaks, suggesting that their local abundance may be relatively unchecked by predators. This may be due to high concentrations of anti-predator chemicals (saponins and plancitoxins), but the effectiveness of chemical deterrents in protecting Acanthaster sp., especially spawned eggs, from predation remains controversial. We show that planktivorous damselfishes will readily consume food pellets with low proportions (≤80%) of eggs of crown-of-thorns starfish. However, all fishes exhibited increasing rejection of food pellets with higher proportions of starfish eggs, suggesting that chemicals in eggs of crown-of-thorns starfish do deter potential predators. Interestingly, palatability thresholds varied greatly among the nine species of planktivorous fish tested. Most notably, Amblyglyphidodon curacao consumed food pellets comprising 100% starfish eggs 1.5 times more than any other fish species, and appeared largely insensitive to increases in the concentration of starfish eggs. After standardising for size, smaller fish species consumed a disproportionate amount of pellets comprising high proportions of starfish eggs, indicating that abundant small-bodied fishes could be particularly important in regulating larval abundance and settlement success of crown-of-thorns starfish. Collectively, this study shows that reef fishes vary in their tolerance to anti-predator chemicals in crown-of-thorns starfish and may represent important predators on early life-history stages.

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Acknowledgements

This project was funded by an Ian Potter Foundation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Grant awarded to ZLC by the Australian Museum Lizard Island Research Station, in addition to a research allocation supplied by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. We would like to thank Jordi Boada Garcia, Vanessa Messmer, Ben Mos and Molly Scott for field and laboratory assistance. Research was conducted in accordance with the James Cook University animal ethics guidelines. Fish were collected under Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Permit Number G13/35909.1.

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Correspondence to Zara-Louise Cowan.

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Communicated by Ecology Editor Dr. Alastair Harborne

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Cowan, ZL., Ling, S.D., Dworjanyn, S.A. et al. Interspecific variation in potential importance of planktivorous damselfishes as predators of Acanthaster sp. eggs. Coral Reefs 36, 653–661 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-017-1556-y

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Keywords

  • Acanthaster
  • Chemical defence
  • Coral reefs
  • Predation
  • Saponins