Indirect Effects of an Exploited Predator on Recruitment of Coral-Reef Fishes

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The more ecologists examine the role of trait-mediated indirect interactions (TMIIs), especially in regulating predator–prey interactions, the more we recognize their fundamental role in structuring food webs. However, most empirical evidence for TMIIs comes from studies that are either conducted in laboratory or mesocosm venues or are restricted to simple food webs involving lower trophic-level animals. Here, I quantified the direct and indirect effects of interactions between high-level vertebrate predators on their vertebrate prey using a field experiment. Specifically, I tested how varying densities of a large-bodied, top predator (Nassau grouper; Epinephelus striatus) affected persistence, growth, and behavior of two smaller-bodied, intermediate predators (coney and graysby groupers; Cephalopholis fulva and C. cruentata) on 20 isolated patch reefs in the Bahamas. Large-bodied groupers are capable of consuming their smaller-bodied counterparts, and previous observational studies have indicated that local abundances of these groupers are negatively correlated. I measured the effects of interactions among groupers on lower trophic-level prey by quantifying recruitment of coral-reef fishes to the reefs. The field experiment demonstrated a strong trophic cascade that was entirely mediated by modified behavior of the intermediate predators. These results indicate that indirect, nonlethal interactions in natural systems can have strong cascading effects even at high trophic levels and in high-diversity food webs. Incorporating the complexity of such indirect effects into fisheries management may improve the sustainability of fished populations and strengthen marine conservation efforts; however these results also indicate that the effects of fishing are complex and difficult to predict.

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Ecological Society of America, v. 89, issue 8, p. 2090-2095