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Predator effects on reef fish settlement depend on predator origin and recruit density

Benkwitt, Cassandra E.
Ecology 2017 v.98 no.4 pp. 896-902
Cephalopholis, Lutjanus, Meliaceae, Pterois volitans, Stegastes, diet, field experimentation, grouper, life history, mortality, predation, predator avoidance, predators, reefs, snapper, Caribbean
During major life‐history transitions, animals often experience high mortality rates due to predation, making predator avoidance particularly advantageous during these times. There is mixed evidence from a limited number of studies, however, regarding how predator presence influences settlement of coral‐reef fishes and it is unknown how other potentially mediating factors, including predator origin (native vs. nonnative) or interactions among conspecific recruits, mediate the non‐consumptive effects of predators on reef fish settlement. During a field experiment in the Caribbean, approximately 52% fewer mahogany snapper (Lutjanus mahogoni) recruited to reefs with a native predator (graysby grouper, Cephalopholis cruentata) than to predator‐free control reefs and reefs with an invasive predator (red lionfish, Pterois volitans) regardless of predator diet. These results suggest that snapper recruits do not recognize nonnative lionfish as a threat. However, these effects depended on the density of conspecific recruits, with evidence that competition may limit the response of snapper to even native predators at the highest recruit densities. In contrast, there was no effect of predator presence or conspecific density on the recruitment of bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus). These context‐dependent responses of coral‐reef fishes to predators during settlement may influence individual survival and shape subsequent population and community dynamics.