Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Predator release of the gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum increases predation on gorgonian corals


When large, predatory fishes and invertebrates were excluded from areas of a coral reef in the Florida Keys, USA, densities of the normally rare gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum, a principal predator of gorgonian corals, increased 19-fold. Gorgonians in predator exclosures were grazed more frequently and extensively by C. gibbosum than were gorgonians in uncaged areas. In exclosures, 14% of all gorgonians showed recent predation by C. gibbosum, with 62% of the entire colony surface being removed from these attacked individuals. In areas where predators of C. gibbosum were not excluded, only 5% of gorgonians exhibited recent damage, with only 26% of the colony surface being removed from these few damaged individuals. Thus, the increases in both frequency and extent of attack combined to produce an 8× increase in gorgonian damage following removal of large predators. These patterns suggest that predators typically suppress C. gibbosum populations, that overfishing of these predators could release C. gibbosum from top-down control, and that this release will allow increased damage to gorgonian corals.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3a–e


  1. Birkeland C, Gregory B (1975) Foraging behavior and rates of feeding of the gatropod, Cyphoma gibbosum (Linnaeus). Bull Nat Hist Mus Los Angel Co 20:57–67

  2. Chiappone M, Dienes H, Swanson DW, Miller SL (2003) Density and gorgonian host-occupation patterns by flamingo tongue snails (Cyphoma gibbosum) in the Florida Keys. Carib J Sci 39:116–127

  3. Connell SD (1997) Exclusion of predatory fish on a coral reef: the anticipation, pre-emption and evaluation of some caging artefacts. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 213:181–198

  4. Cox C, Hunt JH, Lyons WG, Davis GE (1997) Nocturnal foraging of the Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) on offshore reefs of Florida, USA. Mar Freshw Res 48:671–679

  5. Crooks KR, Soule ME (1999) Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system. Nature 400:563–566

  6. Dulvy NK, Freckleton RP, Polunin NVC (2004) Coral reef cascade and the indirect effects of predator removal by exploitation. Ecol Lett 7:410–416

  7. Gerhart DJ (1986) Gregariousness in the gorgonian-eating gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum: tests of several possible causes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 31:255–263

  8. Gerhart DJ (1990) Fouling and gastropod predation: consequences of grazing for a tropical octocoral. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 62:103–108

  9. Hairston NG, Smith FE, Slobodkin LB (1960) Community structure, population control, and competition. Am Nat 94:421–425

  10. Harvell CD, Suchanek TH (1987) Partial predation on tropical gorgonians by Cyphoma gibbosum (Gastropoda). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 38:37–44

  11. Hindell JS, Jenkins GP, Keough MJ (2001) Spatial and temporal variability in the effects of fish predation on macrofauna in relation to habitat complexity and cage effects. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 224:231–250

  12. Kim K, Harvell CD (2004) The rise and fall of a 6 year coral-fungal epizootic. Am Nat 164:S52–S63

  13. Koehl MAR, Wainwright SA (1977) Mechanical adaptations of a giant kelp. Limnol Oceanogr 22:1067–1071

  14. Lasker HR (1991) Population growth of a gorgonian coral: equilibrium and non-equilibrium sensitivity to changes in life history variables. Oecologia 86:503–509

  15. Lasker HR, Coffroth MA (1988) Temporal and spatial variability among grazers: variability in the distribution of the gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum on octocorals. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 43:285–295

  16. Lasker HR, Coffroth MA, Fitzgerald LM (1988) Foraging patterns of Cyphoma gibbosum on octocorals: the roles of host choice and feeding preference. Biol Bull 174:254–266

  17. Lasker HR, Kim K, Coffroth MA (1998) Production, settlement, and survival of plexaurid gorgonian recruits. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 162:111–123

  18. McClanahan TR, Shafir SH (1990) Causes and consequences of sea urchin abundance and diversity in Kenyan coral reef lagoons. Oecologia 83:362–370

  19. Miller MW, Hay ME (1998) Effects of fish predation and seaweed competition on the survival and growth of corals. Oecologia 113:231–238

  20. O’Neal W, Pawlik JR (2002) A reappraisal of the chemical and physical defenses of Caribbean gorgonian corals against predatory fishes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 240:117–126

  21. Randall JE, Warmke GL (1967) The food habits of the hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus), a labrid fish from the western Atlantic. Caribb J Sci 7:141–144

  22. Rhoades DF (1985) Offensive–defensive interactions between herbivores and plants: their relevance in herbivore population dynamics and ecological theory. Am Nat 125:205–238

  23. Silliman BR, Bertness MD (2002) A trophic cascade regulates salt marsh primary production. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 99:10500–10505

  24. Sokal RR, Rohlf FJ (1995) Biometry. WH Freeman, New York

  25. Sussman M, Loya Y, Fine M, Rosenberg E (2003) The marine fireworm Hermodice carunculata is a winter reservoir and spring–summer vector for the coral-bleaching pathogen Vibrio shiloi. Environ Microbiol 5:250–255

  26. Turingan RG (1994) Ecomorphological relationships among Caribbean tetraodontiform fishes. J Zool 233:493–521

  27. Underwood AJ (1997) Experiments in ecology. Cambridge University Press, London

  28. Van Alstyne KL, Paul VJ (1992) Chemical and structural defenses in the sea fan Gorgonia ventalina: effects against generalist and specialist predators. Coral Reefs 11:155–159

  29. Vreeland HV, Lasker HR (1989) Selective feeding of the polychaete Hermodice carunculata Pallas on Caribbean gorgonians. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 129:265–277

  30. Wahle CM (1983) The role of age, size, and injury in sexual reproduction among Jamaican gorgonians. Am Zool 23:961

  31. Williams DE, Miller MW (2005) Coral disease outbreak: pattern, prevalence and transmission in Acropora cervicornis. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 301:119–128

  32. Yoshioka PM, Yoshioka BB (1987) Variable effects of Hurricane David on the shallow water gorgonians of Puerto Rico. Bull Mar Sci 40:132–144

  33. Yoshioka PM, Yoshioka BB (1989) A multispecies, multiscale analysis of spatial patterns and its application to a shallow-water gorgonian community. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 54:257–264

  34. Yoshioka PM, Yoshioka BB (1991) A comparison of the survivorship and growth of shallow water gorgonian species of Puerto Rico. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 69:253–260

Download references


The personnel at UNCW-NURC in Key Largo, FL, USA and many volunteer divers facilitated this research. A. Chequer, M. Hicks, and J. Parker helped in data collection and E. Duffy, M. Keough, J. Kubanek, T. Streelman, M. Weissburg, and two anonymous reviewers improved the manuscript. Support was provided by UNCW-NURC Project #SEGM-2003-19A to M. E. Hay, an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and NSF IGERT Fellowship to D. E. Burkepile, and the Teasley Endowment to Georgia Tech.

Author information

Correspondence to Deron E. Burkepile.

Additional information

Communicated by Michael Keough.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Burkepile, D.E., Hay, M.E. Predator release of the gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum increases predation on gorgonian corals. Oecologia 154, 167–173 (2007).

Download citation


  • Coral reef
  • Mesopredator release
  • Overfishing
  • Trophic cascade