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Multiple factors contribute to the spatially variable and dramatic decline of an invasive snail in an estuary where it was long-established and phenomenally abundant

Abstract

Boom-bust dynamics of invasive species have long intrigued scientists and managers alike, but quantification of such dynamics, let alone their causes, is rare. We documented the decline of a previously prolific invasive mudsnail, Batillaria attramentaria, at Elkhorn Slough estuary in central California, USA. The mudsnail was the most abundant epibenthic invertebrate in the estuary, maintaining very high densities for many decades before declining heterogeneously throughout the estuary over the past decade, decreasing in density by three orders of magnitude at some sites. We used field and laboratory experiments to test several possible mechanisms for its demise. We show that the crab Pachygrapsus crassipes can prey heavily on Batillaria. We detected high dissolution rates of Batillaria shells, and we measured greater predation rates on tethered snails with dissolved versus intact shells. Warm water temperatures and high water levels coincided with the period of most dramatic Batillaria declines (2013–2015). Localized water impoundments appear to buffer environmental drivers of the decline because Batillaria remained abundant at sites with artificial tidal restriction, while the population crashed at one site after full tidal exchange was restored. We also investigated trematode parasite prevalence and molluscicide applications to the surrounding watershed as possible causes of mudsnail declines, but they had little explanatory power. Our findings illustrate the potential for population crashes even for long-established introduced species at pest levels of abundance, and demonstrate that such declines can exhibit spatial heterogeneity. Both of these results highlight the value of investigating population dynamics of invaders across multiple temporal and spatial scales.

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Acknowledgements

We appreciate field assistance from many students, staff and volunteers over the years, including Lucas Principe, Olivia Arredondo, Lindsay Gaskins, Kathleen Hicks and the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at CSUMB, supported by NSF REU BIO-OCE awards 1359488 and 1659628. Thanks to Andrew DeVogelaere, Steve Lonhart, and Erica Burton for their long-term support for the bank erosion monitoring program which supplied some of the snail and crab data. Thanks to Kelly Goedde-Matthews, Kristy Kroeker and the UCSC Coastal Sustainability Lab for pore water analysis. Elkhorn Slough Reserve staff (KW, SF, RJ, CE) were supported by grants from NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management. We are grateful to Jim Carlton and three anonymous reviewers who provided extensive, thoughtful suggestions that improved the clarity of the paper.

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Correspondence to Kerstin Wasson.

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Wasson, K., Fabian, R.A., Fork, S. et al. Multiple factors contribute to the spatially variable and dramatic decline of an invasive snail in an estuary where it was long-established and phenomenally abundant. Biol Invasions 22, 1181–1202 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-019-02172-w

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Keywords

  • Boom-bust dynamics
  • Gastropod
  • Invasion
  • Lag time
  • Population dynamics
  • Predation