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Alternative camouflage strategies mediate predation risk among closely related co-occurring kelp crabs


Although camouflage is a common predator defense strategy across a wide variety of organisms, direct tests of the adaptive and ecological consequences of camouflage are rare. In this study, we demonstrated that closely related crabs in the family Epialtidae coexist in the same algal environment but use alternative forms of camouflage––decoration and color change––to protect themselves from predation. Decoration and color change are both plastic camouflage strategies in that they can be changed to match different habitats: decoration occurs on a short timescale (hours to days), while color change accompanies molting and occurs on longer timescales (months). We found that the species that decorated the most had the lowest magnitude of color change (Pugettia richii); the species that decorated the least showed the highest magnitude of color change (Pugettia producta), and a third species (Mimulus foliatus) was intermediate in both decoration and color change, suggesting a negative correlation in utilization of these strategies. This negative correlation between color change and decoration camouflage utilization mirrored the effectiveness of these camouflage strategies in reducing predation in different species. Color camouflage primarily reduced predation on P. producta, while decoration camouflage (but not color camouflage) reduced predation on P. richii. These results indicate there might be among-species trade-offs in utilization and/or effectiveness of these two forms of plastic camouflage, with important consequences for distribution of these species among habitats and the evolution of different camouflage strategies in this group.

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J. E. Byrnes, A. L. Chaudoin, L. Carney, T. Mai, S. Bryson, and R. C. Coates provided diving assistance during field surveys and tethering experiments. D. Chuang, B. MacElvaine, T. Dillon, and P. L. Reynolds assisted in crab care and photo analysis. This research was conducted in accordance with current U.S. laws. A. R. Hughes, J. M. Davis, and A. Sih, and four anonymous reviewers provided constructive criticism on earlier versions of the manuscript. Financial support was provided by the Center for Population Biology (University of California–Davis) and a National Science Foundation (NSF) predoctoral fellowship to K. M. H., and NSF grant no. OCE 03-51778 to J. J. S.

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Correspondence to Kristin M. Hultgren.

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Communicated by Pete Peterson.

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Hultgren, K.M., Stachowicz, J.J. Alternative camouflage strategies mediate predation risk among closely related co-occurring kelp crabs. Oecologia 155, 519–528 (2008).

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  • Decorator crab
  • Pugettia
  • Epialtidae
  • Color change
  • Kelp forest