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Habitat fragmentation differentially affects trophic levels and alters behavior in a multi-trophic marine system

Rielly-Carroll, Elizabeth, Freestone, Amy L.
Oecologia 2017 v.183 no.3 pp. 899-908
Callinectes sapidus, Mercenaria mercenaria, adults, clams, crabs, habitat fragmentation, habitats, juveniles, marine ecosystems, predation, predators, seagrasses, trophic levels
Seagrass, an important subtidal marine ecosystem, is being lost at a rate of 110 km² year⁻¹, leading to fragmented seagrass seascapes. Habitat fragmentation is predicted to affect trophic levels differently, with higher trophic levels being more sensitive, stressing the importance of a multi-trophic perspective. Utilizing the trophic relationship between the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and hard clam (Mercenaria mercenaria), where adult blue crabs prey on juvenile blue crabs, and juvenile blue crabs prey on small hard clams, we examined whether predation rates, abundance, and behavior of predators and prey differed between continuous and fragmented seagrass in a multi-trophic context at two sites in Barnegat Bay, NJ. We tested the hypothesis that fragmented habitats would differentially affect trophic levels within a tri-trophic system, and our results supported this hypothesis. Densities of adult blue crabs were higher in fragmented than continuous habitats. Densities of juvenile blue crabs, the primary predator of hard clams, were lower in fragmented habitats than continuous, potentially due to increased predation by adult blue crabs. Clams experienced lower predation and burrowed to a shallower depth in fragmented habitats than in continuous habitat, likely due in part to the low densities of juvenile blue crabs, their primary predator. Our results suggest that while trophic levels are differentially affected, the impact of habitat fragmentation may be stronger on intermediate rather than top trophic levels in some marine systems.