Behavioural and developmental responses of predatory coral reef fish to variation in the abundance of prey
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Ecological theory suggests that the behaviour, growth and abundance of predators will be strongly influenced by the abundance of prey. Predators may in turn play an important role in structuring prey populations and communities. Responses of predators to variation in prey abundance have most commonly been demonstrated in low-diversity communities where food webs are relatively simple. How predators respond in highly diverse assemblages such as in coral reef habitats is largely unknown. This study describes an experiment that examined how the movement, diet and growth of the coral reef piscivore, Cephalopholis boenak (Serranidae) responded to variation in the abundance of its prey. Predator densities were standardised on small patch reefs made from the lagoonal reef-building coral, Porites cylindrica. These patch reefs exhibited natural variation in the abundance and community structure of multiple species of prey. However, our experiment generated a relatively simple predator–prey relationship, with C. boenak primarily responding to the most abundant species of prey. Three responses of predators were observed: aggregative, functional and developmental. Thirty-one per cent of individuals moved between patch reefs during the experiment, all from areas of relatively low to high prey density. Feeding rates were higher on patch reefs of high prey density, while growth rates of fish that remained on low prey density reefs throughout the experiment were lower. Growth rates of C. boenak on the experimental reefs were also much higher than for those living on natural patch reefs over the same time period, corresponding with overall differences in prey abundance. These results suggest that local abundance, feeding rate and growth of C. boenak were closely linked to the abundance of their main prey. This combination of predatory responses is a potential mechanism behind recent observations of density-dependent mortality and population regulation of prey in coral reef fish communities.
KeywordsPredation Predator responses Food limitation Population regulation Density-dependence
Many thanks to the ‘Seedy Krew’ (Justin Chidlow and Mike Emslie) and Ruth Williams, who all provided spirited assistance in the field. Comments from Glenn Almany, three anonymous reviewers and the Topic Editor (Dr Stephen Swearer), considerably improved earlier versions of the manuscript. Thanks also to Steve Rocliffe for help producing the figures. While doing this work, BB-S was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Research Award. Fieldwork was funded by two Merit Research Grants and a Lizard Island Doctoral Fellowship to BB-S and an Australian Research Council Grant to GPJ. This is a contribution from the Lizard Island Research Station, a facility of the Australian Museum.
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