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Prey size structure diminishes cascading effects by increasing interference competition and predation among prey

Geraldi, Nathan R.
Ecology 2015 v.96 no.9 pp. 2533-2543
Crassostrea virginica, Opsanus tau, biomass, crabs, food chain, longevity, mortality, oysters, predation, predator-prey relationships, predators, surveys
The size of an organism can change by orders of magnitude during its lifespan. Size can determine whether an individual consumes, is consumed, competes, or avoids individuals of the same or different species. Two complementary mesocosm experiments with a tri‐trophic food chain (top predator, toadfish, Opsanus tau; intermediate prey, mud crab, family Xanthidae; basal resource, oyster, Crassostrea virginica) were conducted to measure how the size of both the top predator and the intermediate prey affects consumptive and behavioral interactions in trophic cascades. In the first experiment, I systematically varied the sizes of predators and prey, respectively. The amount of crab biomass consumed was dependent on crab size and not toadfish size, but the effect of crab size did not cascade to alter oyster survival. Increased oyster survival from crab interference competition in the absence of toadfish was similar to oyster survival from predator‐avoidance behavior in the presence of a toadfish. When all crab size classes were present, crab mortality was similar in the presence and absence of toadfish, highlighting the importance of intraguild predation in food‐web dynamics. The second experiment separated crab mortality by other crabs from crab mortality by predatory toadfish and found that crab mortality generally switched from intra‐ to interguild predation when a toadfish was present. In addition, field surveys indicated mud crab abundance and size was primarily influenced by mud crab recruitment, but not by toadfish abundance, which supports our experimental results that interactions among mud crabs have similar effects to predator–prey interactions. These findings indicate that changes in size or abundance of intermediate prey may be comparable to changes in top predator abundance in terms of trophic interactions and their transmission to lower levels, which suggests that certain types of relatively simple food chains can be resilient to the loss of higher trophic levels.