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Tropical fish community does not recover 45 years after predator introduction

Sharpe, D. M. T., De León, L. F., González, R., Torchin, M. E.
Ecology 2017 v.98 no.2 pp. 412-424
Characidae, Cichla, bass, community structure, fish communities, functional diversity, indigenous species, lakes, littoral zone, predation, predators, prey species, species diversity, tropical fish, Panama
Predation is considered to be an important factor structuring natural communities. However, it is often difficult to determine how it may influence long‐term, broad‐scale, diversity patterns, particularly in diverse tropical systems. Biological introductions can provide powerful insight to test the sustained consequences of predation in natural communities, if pre‐introduction data are available. Half a century ago, Zaret and Paine demonstrated strong and immediate community‐level effects following the introduction of a novel apex predator (peacock bass, Cichla monoculus) into Lake Gatun, Panama. To test for long‐term changes associated with this predator introduction, we followed up on their classic study by replicating historical sampling methods and examining changes in the littoral fish community at two sites in Lake Gatun 45 years post‐introduction. To broaden our inference, we complemented this temporal comparison with a spatial analysis, wherein we compared the fish communities from two lakes with and one lake without peacock bass. Comparisons with historical data revealed that the peacock bass remains the most abundant predator in Lake Gatun. Furthermore, the collapse of the littoral prey community observed immediately following the invasion has been sustained over the past 45 years. The mean abundance of native littoral fish is now 96% lower than it was prior to the introduction. Diversity (rarefied species richness) declined by 64% post‐introduction, and some native species appear to have been locally extirpated. We observed a similar pattern across invaded and uninvaded lakes: the mean abundance of native fishes was 5–40 times lower in lakes with (Gatun, Alajuela) relative to the lake without peacock bass (Bayano). In particular, small‐bodied native fishes (Characidae, Peociliidae), which are common prey of the peacock bass, were more than two orders of magnitude (307 times) less abundant in Gatun and one order of magnitude (28 times) less abundant in Alajuela than in Bayano. However, total native fish diversity did not differ significantly across lakes, suggesting that while many native species have declined in abundance, few have been completely extirpated. Introduced predators can have strong effects on community structure and functional diversity, even in highly diverse tropical communities, and these effects can persist over multiple decades.